Customs Helps Protect Against Counterfeit Trademarks


Under United States federal statutes it is unlawful to import into the United States any merchandise of foreign manufacture if such merchandise, or the label, sign, print, package, wrapper, or receptacle, bears a trademark owned by a citizen of, or by a corporation or association created or organized within, the United States, and registered in the Patent and Trademark Office by a person domiciled in the United States and that trademark is filed with United States Customs and Border Protection ("Customs"), unless written consent for the importation is produced from the trademark owner at the time of importation. Non-complying merchandise is subject to seizure and forfeiture and the importer of such merchandise may be fined.  To be sure, this is a statute with teeth. 

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) recently announced that under its program known as "Operation Fashion Faux Pas" it had executed search warrants against five vendors in Orange County, California, and seized more than $200,000 worth of goods, capping a six month crackdown on Orange County retailers suspected of selling counterfeit merchandise.  ICE further explained that its "investigators conducted a total of 18 warranted and consensual searches resulting in the seizure of more than $820,000 worth of counterfeit goods" during the course of its investigation.  The ICE press release went on to state that  "In fiscal year 2011, intellectual property rights enforcement by HSI [Homeland Security Investigations] and U.S. Customs and Border Protection led to more than 24,000 seizures, a 24 percent increase compared to the previous year. The seized goods had a total value of more than $1.1 billion, based upon the manufacturer's suggested retail price had the products been legitimate" (Press Release). 

Counterfeit merchandise is big business, but legitimate U.S. trademark owners have a powerful ally in Customs.  Trademark registrations should be filed with Customs by their legitimate owners.  Thereafter, any article imported into the United States bearing a counterfeit trademark shall be seized by Customs.  After seizure unless the legitimate trademark owner provides written consent to the importation of the articles the articles shall be disposed of by Customs.  "Operation Fashion Faux Pas" is just one example of the enormous effort that Customs makes to intercept and stop the importation of counterfeit goods into the United States.

In another recent enforcement action ICE, European law enforcement agencies and Europol seized 132 internet domain names used by vendors selling counterfeit merchandise to unsuspecting consumers.  In the course of this investigation federal law enforcement officers made purchases of products from online retailers who were suspected of selling counterfeit products. If the copyright holders confirmed that the purchased products were counterfeit, actions were then pursued to seize the domain names (Press Release). 

All of these enforcement activities are the result of tremendous cooperation among various law enforcement agencies.  Nevertheless, it all starts with the trademark owner and its cooperation with Customs.  The protections are there and this is an area where Customs is doing its utmost to protect United States' registered trademark owners and the legitimate importers of goods.

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