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Argon Trademark Dispute Goes to Court

What it might look like if Aragon and Argon watches actually went to court over the trademark dispute.
My prior post described a disappointing development for those collectors hoping to acquire an Argon Spaceone watch via the brand's Kickstarter campaign. The campaign had reached over $1 million in funding when Kickstarter's management stepped in and froze the whole thing over an "intellectual property dispute." When I posted about this development on Instagram, Hodinkee editor Tony Traina noted in the comments that another brand, Aragon watches, had filed a complaint with the US Patent and Trade Office (USPTO) back in April (thanks Tony!). Argon's account replied and indicated that they had already filed a registration for their brand name and they were retaining counsel in New York City.

On Tuesday, June 27 of this week, more details were offered via a lawsuit filed in the US District Court for the Southern District of Florida. The case is filed on behalf of OKO International Co, which does business as Aragon watches. The CEO of Aragon, Wing Liang, is named in the case. The defendent is the watchmaker Theo Auffret. Interestingly, Auffret's reported partner in Argon, Guillaume Laidet, is not named in the lawsuit. For the purpose of readability, I will make reference to Liang and Auffret going forward (rather than Aragon and Argon).

One of Liang's principle complaints is that collectors may confuse Auffret's product with Liang's due to the similarity of the brand names.
A screenshot of the Aragon / Argon lawsuit filing.
Both are watch companies, although I will note that Liang's watch designs really are nothing like Auffret's Spaceone. Liang was granted a trademark on Aragon in 2016 by the USPTO. Auffret's trademark application in the United States is still under review. In two exhibits, Liang offers evidence of public confusion over the brands. Both exhibits are emails received by Liang (Aragon). The first email mistakenly sent to Liang (Aragon) is dated June 6. It is addressed to Argon's "Theo" in the salutation. The second is an email dated June 20, also mistakenly sent to Liang (Aragon), expressing concerns that Kickstarter had suspended Auffret's campaign. Side note: I receive a whole lot of misaddressed emails about dinner reservations, tee times, and the like on one of my accounts but I've never filed a lawsuit in response.

Liang's complaint also indicates that his attorneys twice contacted Auffret but did not receive a response. The "cease and desist" letter they present is dated June 14, 2023 and it is addressed to Auffret in Paris. The letter indicates that Liang may seek compensation in the form of "damages or disgorgement of [Auffret's] profits." Liang may also seek to treble these remedies and have their attorney's fees covered. Liang's attorneys demanded that Auffret cease using the name Argon and transfer their internet domain "argon.com" to Liang. They also demanded that Auffret withdraw his trademark application and send details about Argon's company finances. Liang's attorneys allege Auffret did not reply, despite a follow-up letter dated June 22 that raised the spectre of a lawsuit if Auffret did not reply by June 26. The fact that a lawsuit was filed suggests Auffret and / or his attorneys did not reply. If I'm honest, I can't blame them. The Argon domain name now has value and handing it over would have been quite costly.

Liang's complaint includes a few more details. Liang or his representatives did file a trademark violation form with Kickstarter on the same date they sent their first letter to Auffret (June 14). It stands to reason that this submission triggered the suspension of Auffret's Kickstarter campaign. In some ways, there is a glimmer of hope for backers of the Spaceone watch. Liang's complaint notes, "this suspension [by Kickstarter] is only temporary and that funds from the campaign may soon be disbursed." In addition, Liang's complaint includes a copy of a USPTO "Letter of Protest" memorandum, authored by USPTO attorney Allison Schrody, dated April 21. The memo outlines evidence that is possible grounds for refusal of Auffret's request for a trademark. Those grounds would include possible confusion between the words "Aragon" and "Argon."

Schrody also notes that USPTO could simply place a disclosure requirement on Auffret, presumably clarifying that Argon has nothing to do with Aragon. If I'm honest, I really wish everyone could just agree that this is the amicable solution to the dispute. A disclosure would address Liang's concern that buyers might be confused by the two brand names. It would also allow the Kickstarter campaign to continue, permitting fulfillment of transactions that would be mutually beneficial for Auffret and aspirational Spaceone buyers. That kind of seems like a win-win-win.

There is a fair question regarding whether Liang's lawsuit is frivolous or not. I don't actually believe Liang's attorneys are acting as trademark trolls because Liang does actually make and sell watches. However, OKO International (the holding company for Liang's Aragon brand) is clearly litigious. It appears they have filed six trademark lawsuits in the past ten years. They're fully within their right to engage in litigation and my understanding is that if a party does not defend their trademark, they are at risk for losing it. However, this episode illustrates one of the well-known downsides to intellectual property law. It can stand in the way of legitimate business and innovation. I'm not aware that Liang has ever designed or sold a jump hour wristwatch such as Auffret's Spaceone. From this perspective, it seems implausible that Auffret has diverted some of Liang's sales. The products are all watches, but not all watches are the same. One thing is certain: more of this story will be told in coming months.

For those interested in full details of the case, it is OKO International Co. v. Auffret Paris et al, filed on June 27, 2023 as 0:2023cv61232
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