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Following social media firestorm, Specialized eases off aggressive legal policy

The California-based company retracts trademark violation orders to two parties, Epix and Café Roubaix

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So massive was the social media furor over Specialized’s legal aggression toward a small Canadian bike shop over a trademark infringement last weekend that the California-based company flew its founder and CEO, Mike Sinyard, to Calgary to apologize to the shop’s owner, Daniel Richter, in person.

That was Wednesday, more than four days after the story initially broke in the Calgary Herald. Those four days saw near complete radio silence from the brand, save for a single Tweet promising reconciliation Tuesday night. Anger grew steadily, with cycling enthusiasts plastering Facebook and Twitter with indignation at both the perceived attack on a small business owner and on the word “Roubaix” itself, which many felt should never have been coopted by a commercial entity. The silence seemed to compound the problem — how hard is it, after all, to issue a simple apology?

The slow response was a result of both time spent game planning by the brand’s public relations team and in consultation with the company’s own lawyers. When the time came to put on a public face, Specialized took full advantage of its photo-op moment, working behind the scenes with Richter to address his concerns before posting a video of the Specialized founder and the shop owner happily chatting side by side.

The PR move nearly unraveled less than 12 hours later. For a few brief hours Thursday morning, it seemed that Specialized had not, in fact, learned anything, as yet another report of its legal wrangling against a small brand popped up on Facebook. This time the controversy centered on Epix Gear, a custom clothing manufacturer focused on high-performance cycling and triathlon apparel.

In an email to VeloNews midday Thursday, Epix founder Jarek Barc stated that Specialized “demand(s) that we not only abandon our trademark application, but also cease using the Epix logos altogether,” based on Specialized’s ownership of the Epic trademark.

Specialized sent a cease and desist letter to Epix on December 4, prior to the Café Roubaix incident, stating that the apparel company behind Epix, JC Asia Ltd., had filed a trademark for the Epix logo that was “nearly identical to Specialized’s well-known Epic mark,” and that the Epix mark was “likely to cause confusion, mistake, and deception as to whether JC’s products are associated, sponsored, licensed, or otherwise approved by Specialized and constitutes trademark infringement and unfair competition.”

Specialized sought to have the Epix mark thrown out entirely. The company filed a formal protest with the U.S. Patent and Trademark office just before the Café Roubaix fiasco — a protest that one intellectual property lawyer contacted by VeloNews, Jeffrey DiTolla, said would likely be successful.

Specialized acted more quickly to stop a second social media uproar, releasing a statement from Sinyard himself. It was posted on the Specialized’s Facebook page Thursday evening and confirmed the company’s apologetic sentiment, as Sinyard took personal responsibility for both his company’s actions and the overarching policy that led to them.

“I would like to apologize and let everyone know I realize I handled this situation wrong from the start and I’m very sorry for that,” Sinyard said.

Sinyard pointed to an ongoing problem with counterfeit products as the source of Specialized’s aggressive legal stance. “Due to this we have recently gone after IP and trademark issues more aggressively in the interest of protecting the safety of riders and the livelihood of our dealers and their hard-working employees,” Sinyard said. That tactic will be evaluated and, “As a result we’re going to take a much closer look at all pending and future intellectual property and trademark issues, making sure to only pursue those that present a clear and obvious danger.”

Sinyard utilized his Facebook post to put an end to the Epix legal action as well, stating that Specialized had retracted the cease and desist letter sent to Epix. Epix was not initially aware of the change in stance, as a phone conversation earlier on Thursday had ended poorly between the two parties; Barc was aware that the letter would be withdrawn, but was under the impression that Specialized would continue to protest its Epix trademark.

Specialized’s public relations team confirmed to VeloNews that there would be “no more legal action, period,” on the Epix matter.

With that statement, the issue seems to have come full circle. Specialized has, at least outwardly, promised to relax the legal policies that put it in hot water in the first place; Café Roubaix keeps its name on both the sign outside and on its wheels, which were the primary source of Specialized’s legal interest. Epix, too will keep its name, and its trademark. All thanks to a social media firestorm set off by a Canadian newspaper on a quiet Saturday morning.

The “Big Red S” has quite clearly been led to a valuable lesson: its position as an industry Goliath is no match for David with a Twitter sword.