The Siren Song of the Subtle Copycat – Revisiting Trademark Law with Insights from Consumer Research

The Trademark Reporter, Vol. 111, No. 4 (2021), pp. 739-777

41 Pages Posted: 11 Oct 2021

See all articles by Martin Senftleben

Martin Senftleben

Institute for Information Law (IViR), University of Amsterdam; University of Amsterdam

Femke van Horen

VU University Amsterdam

Date Written: July 1, 2021


The architecture of trademark protection systems rests on the assumption that brand imitation strategies are particularly harmful when they seek to achieve a high level of similarity by copying specific trademarked features of the original brand. Marketing research, however, shows that this assumption is doubtful. Subtle, theme-based imitation strategies – aiming at a modest degree of similarity – may allow copycats to garner greater profits and manipulate consumers’ purchasing decisions. Like an enchanting siren song, they may lure customers away from the original products of brand owners. Against this background, the paper discusses the question whether trademark law should be recalibrated.

To lay groundwork for this discussion, the analysis outlines central functions of trademarks in today’s market economy before describing, on the basis of EU trademark law, the traditional approach to copycat strategies from a marketing and legal perspective. Introducing insights from recent marketing research, the paper explains why subtle, theme-based strategies may be more harmful than blatant, feature-based copying. The further examination places this insight in a legal context. Contrasting the empirical findings of marketing research with traditional assessment schemes in EU trademark law, it becomes apparent that there is a remarkable mismatch between legal theory and market reality. Current trademark provisions are not aligned with “real life” consumer perception. As a result, copycats with a subtle imitation strategy remain under the radar of applicable infringement tests. This dilemma is taken as a starting point to discuss the need for reforms in trademark law.

Keywords: copycat brands, type of imitation, similarity, conceptual marks, confusion, dilution, blurring, tarnishment, unfair free-riding, unfair competition, trademark infringement, consumer perception, freedom of competition, empirical legal studies, marketing research, advertising, new types of marks

Suggested Citation

Senftleben, Martin and van Horen, Femke, The Siren Song of the Subtle Copycat – Revisiting Trademark Law with Insights from Consumer Research (July 1, 2021). The Trademark Reporter, Vol. 111, No. 4 (2021), pp. 739-777, Available at SSRN:

Martin Senftleben (Contact Author)

Institute for Information Law (IViR), University of Amsterdam ( email )

Rokin 84
Amsterdam, 1012 KX

University of Amsterdam ( email )

Roetersstraat 11
Amsterdam, NE 1018 WB

Femke Van Horen

VU University Amsterdam ( email )

De Boelelaan 1105
Amsterdam, 1081HV
+31205982272 (Phone)


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