In 2010, Hells Angels Motorcycle Club, the most famous and powerful outlaw motorcycle club in the world, operating in more than fifty countries across the world, sued Alexander McQueen for trademark infringement. This case brought to light the Hells Angels obsession with the protection of their intellectual property, an obsession that has since the 70s slowly spread across the world of outlaw motorcycle clubs at large. The fact that the most notorious and self-proclaimed outlaws take recourse to the very law they attempt to disregard raised questions about the nature of the encounters across the legal and illegal as well as of the strategic use of legal protection afforded by, for instance, the trademark law. The project, «Gangs, Brands and Intellectual Property Rights» used this case of IPR in the context of the transnational expansion of outlaw motorcycle clubs as a springboard for a larger anthropological and cultural investigation of the relationship of these groups to the state, of their pursuit of legitimization of their informal power, the nature of their branding and transnational expansion and of the rise of their popularity within the current political, cultural and socio-economic environment. The project was designed to understand the ways in which outlaw motorcycle clubs use the law and legal businesses to further their interests and acquire power across the spaces of legality and illegality, thus increasingly mirroring white-collar crime (here the following edited volume that resulted from this project is particularly relevant: eds. Kuldova, T. & Sanchez-Jankowski, M., 2017, «Outlaw Motorcycle Clubs and Street Gangs: Scheming Legality, Resisting Criminalization», New York: Palgrave Macmillan). The project also focused on larger questions of legitimization of informal power in society, a social process not only limited to outlaw motorcycle clubs keen to improve their public image in an attempt to resist the charges of organized crime but also common to the logic of corporations and brands facing different forms of scandals and charges. In this respect, philanthropy and corporate social responsibility emerged as phenomena worth investigating in a comparative light as forms of legitimization of informal power be this the power of organized crime groups or corporations (here the following article that resulted from this project is particularly relevant: Kuldova, T. 2017. «When Elites and Outlaws do Philanthropy: On the Limits of Private Vices for Public Benefit, Trends in Organized Crime). Overall, the project, «Gangs, Brands and Intellectual Property Rights, was a theoretically driven empirical research project, comparative in nature, that raised not only questions about the nature of law and brand protection, as well as the magical and fetishistic element of contemporary brands (here the following article that resulted from this project is particularly relevant: Kuldova, T. 2016. Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation in Fashion Business: Interrogating the Fetishism of the Trademark Law, Journal of Design History), but also, through the lens of the successful brands of the big outlaw motorcycle clubs, it investigated the power and role of iconic brands in contemporary society (here the following article that resulted from this project is particularly relevant: Kuldova, T. 2017. «The Sublime Splendor of Intimidation: Outlaw Biker Aesthetics of Power, Visual Anthropology). Asking these questions, the project inevitably also opened up a larger interrogation of the relationship between crime, consumption, luxury, and branding. These questions are addressed in detail in a forthcoming volume I have edited together with Steve Hall and Mark Horsley, «Crime, Harm and Consumer Culture, to which I contributed a chapter and co-wrote the introduction (London: Routledge, 2020). In different ways, the project dialectically investigated the logic of outlaw motorcycle clubs and contemporary brands, focusing on what can be gained if we think one through the other. Or else, what can outlaw motorcycle clubs teach us about the nature of contemporary brands, business, and politics and vice versa? The project focused empirically on outlaw motorcycle clubs and their supporters in central Europe (Austria, the Czech Republic, Slovakia, and Germany) and used a range of qualitative methods and critical discourse analysis. The project ran from August 2016 to August 2019 and resulted in 1 monograph (Kuldova T. «How Outlaws Win Friends and Influence People», New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 6 peer-reviewed articles, 2 edited volumes, 7 peer-reviewed book chapters, 21 conference presentations and public talks, 4 popular articles, 8 interviews in the media, 2 international conferences organized by the PI and 1 art exhibition. Additionally, another monograph, «Luxury and Corruption», based on the project is currently being written. For all project results, see: https://app.cristin.no/projects/show.jsf?id=519571
The analysis resulting from this project may serve as a valuable resource for researchers engaged in policy-oriented research and policy-makers. For project results see https://app.cristin.no/projects/show.jsf?id=519571
The project also resulted in a new research network, which I established in 2017, «Extreme Anthropology Research Network» https://www.extreme-anthropology.com/ and a new international open-access peer-reviewed «Journal of Extreme Anthropology» https://journals.uio.no/index.php/JEA recognized as level 1 in Norway, with an international editorial board consisting of leading experts. The proceedings from two international conferences which I organized in Vienna and in Oslo are being published in two special issues of the journal. The journal and research network have a solid presence on social media (https://www.facebook.com/groups/extremeanthropology/, https://twitter.com/Extreme_Anthro)
Gangs, Brands and Intellectual Property Rights is an interdisciplinary project inspired by the lawsuit between Hells Angels, the infamous motorcycle club, and the fashion designer Alexander McQueen (2010), accused by HAMC of trademark infringement. This lawsuit brought Hells Angels's obsession with copyright protection to the attention of media worldwide and opened up the question of interactions across the parallel realms of legality and illegality and the HAMC's strategic use of legal protection afforded by trademark law. This project builds further on a recently commenced interdisciplinary exploratory research project into these interrelations (05/2015 - 07/2016) developed in collaboration with UC Berkeley and focusing on the HAMC as a transnational business organization in the US and Norway. This project extends this research both geographically (to central Europe) and theoretically by analyzing in depth the organizations modes of operation, focusing in particular on their legal businesses, IPR lawsuits and attempts to manipulate their public image, while comparing their organizational structure and strategies of market capture to those of luxury brands. While there is a wealth of popular books and governmental reports focusing on crime, there is little academic research available beyond focus on lifestyle and crime; questions of transnational organization, strategic use of legal businesses and the problematic legal protection afforded by trademark law in the European context have not been addressed so far. The project combines ethnographic and historical methods with study of legal documents and media archives, while being theoretically positioned within anthropology of law and business. Being a female researcher studying exclusively male gangs known for their misogynist attitudes can be a challenge. However, so far this has not prevented conducting successful interviews. The research may be conductive to shaping policy and to revisions of existing IPR laws.