-Wes Anderson, Attorney
It has not been a great week for oatmeal.
The Quaker Oats Company (a subsidiary of food and beverage giant PepsiCo), on the heels of a recall for its Quaker Quinoa Granola Bars, has also made a rather embarrassing gaffe on the trademark enforcement front. And unfortunately, demand letters are far more difficult to recall.
Evidently, an in-house trademark attorney at Quaker Oats recently discovered a Christmas tree farm in Visalia, California using the (rather odd) name “Quaker Oats Christmas Tree Farm.” The attorney sent a somewhat perfunctory template demand letter to the farm, citing Quaker Oats’ various registrations for the QUAKER trademark:
It was therefore quite a surprise to discover that you are operating a business under the name “Quaker Oats Christmas Tree Farm.” Your use of our trademark is likely to mislead consumers into believing that your business is associated with the Quaker Oats Company. It is also likely to weaken our very strong trademark. In light of the foregoing, we hereby demand that you immediately stop all use of the “Quaker Oats” name. [. . .] While we would like to settle this matter amicably, we will take all steps which are necessary and appropriate to protect our name.
Seems reasonable enough. Diligent enforcement is, after all, an essential facet of a robust trademark portfolio. But there are two problems here: first, the farm in question is owned and operated by people of the Quaker faith. And second, the farm’s actual name is the Quaker Oaks Christmas Tree Farm, a “sustainable agriculture and environmental education center in the Kaweah Delta of California.”
And as tends to occur when big companies send flimsy demand letters, things went public fairly quickly. The Religious Society of Friends (Quakers) in Irvine, California soon posted the letter, along with its truly entertaining response (which you should read in full at the link):
My breakfast this morning—rolled oats by the way—was interrupted by the arrival of your letter via FedEx, which was delivered to us despite the fact that you have misspelled our company name which is Quaker OAKS Christmas Tree Farm. Our farm was so named because religious services were held outdoors on this farm under a great oak tree until about ten years ago when we were able to move into our new Meetinghouse on another corner of our farm.
Our business is 100% owned and operated by Quakers. I suspect that your firm employs considerably fewer, if any, Quakers. We trace our Quaker ancestors back 320 years and they were mostly farmers, but I don’t know how many of them grew oats for your company. My guess is that you may be selling far more Lutheran oats, Methodist oats, or maybe atheist oats. Could your company be guilty of product source misrepresentation?
When it comes to enforcement, I’m quite certain Quaker Oats has a lot on its plate (pardon the pun), but here’s another reminder to wield the power of a demand letter with caution, and to always double-check the details of a potential infringer’s use.