Two of my blogger friends recently reported on a pair of trademark bullies – trademark owners with little in the way of rights, but lots in the way of money, abusing their trademark rights as if they were “magic word patents.”
Ron Coleman reports on Moveon.org’s trademark bullying. (link). Apparently, someone made a T-Shirt with the following message:
General Petraeus has done more for this country than MoveOn.org. MoveOn.org, the worst friend a Democrat could have! Move Away from Move On! (source)
Move on sent the T-Shirt maker a nasty cease and desist letter, so she caved in because she knew that she was financially outgunned. (source) Despite her excellent defense, Moveon.org “bought the pot.” (That is a poker reference, not a drug reference).
Personally, I agree with the moveon.org ad. Nevertheless, with this singular act of squelching political dissent, moveon.org has made it damn certain that they won’t get another check from me until they apologize and make amends.
Mike Atkins reports on Starbucks’ recent trademark bullying. (link) In that case, a christian clothier made t-shirts and caps with a logo that looks like the Starbucks logo, but it has a picture of the J-man in in it. (image here). I can see how this might not be political speech, nor even a parody, but where is the likelihood of consumer confusion? There very well may be dilution, but for Starbucks to wield its corporate might like this is a little silly. Of course, its just as silly as “christians” looking to create a Starbucks-style logo with their savior on it. It speaks volumes about what has happened to christianity when the ultimate symbol of corporate greed inspires a graven image.
The LA Times sums up the issue rather succinctly:
Trademark law doesn’t confer monopoly rights over all uses of a registered phrase or symbol, however, and it wasn’t created simply to protect the trademark owner’s interests. Instead, it’s designed to protect consumers against being misled or confused about brands. The courts have repeatedly ruled in favor of parodies and critiques; that’s why www.famousbrandnamesucks.com doesn’t violate famousbrandname’s trademark. And most, if not all, of the items targeted by MoveOn were clearly designed to razz it, not to trick buyers into thinking they were the group’s products.(source)
On the whole, I like trademark law. The point of it is to avoid consumer confusion. Essentially, if you are really violating someone else’s trademark, you are either lying about the source or origin of your goods or stealing the other guy’s customers through deception. In a trademark case, an ethical lawyer is fighting for what they believe is the truth.
Of course, there are always members of the bar who fail to exercise client control – and that is when the legal system gets abused and turned into a forum for unfounded temper tantrums and the exercise of greed.