– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

Last year I wrote a “Change Your Name Already” blog post about Overstock.com on DuetsBlog which described the painful way that Overstock.com was trying to communicate that their name did not fit what they were doing as a business…”we are so much more!” My response was to politely suggest that they call me to help them find a new name that did fit their business model.

Recently MailChimp launched an ad campaign that approached the “our name does not fit our business model” issue from a different angle. In this effort, they celebrate the fact that they have outgrown their name and tell prospective customers that they would like to help them do the same thing.

Brilliant…simply brilliant. Both Overstock.com and MailChimp have outgrown their names, but Overstock.com communicates it in a way that makes the potential customer feel stupid (“you thought we only sold overstock items but you are stupid…we actually do more!”). MailChimp admits they do more than what their name implies and desire to have the same impact on the prospective customer’s business, thereby leaving prospective customers feeling hopeful. Big difference.

So the CEO of Overstock.com should still call me to initiate a name development project…but the CEO of MailChimp can just take a bow!

— Aaron Keller, co-author, The Physics of Brand, co-founder Capsule.us and Columnist at Twin Cities Business magazine.

There are so many hidden dangers in the process of naming any new offering — many of which can sneak up on you. We all like to believe we’ll see the danger before it meets us squarely in the forehead like a baseball bat, but the number of horror stories would indicate otherwise.

We’ve illustrated the Jimmy’s Johnnys in past blog posts, which certainly doesn’t create a good brand image for Jimmy John’s. But, really that’s a trademark issue, not a meaning issue. The meaning issues happen because there’s existing cultural meaning around a word that really isn’t good for your brand.

Rusty Taco dealt with it by moving to R Taco — not something this writer agreed with, but it happened. If you’re wondering what meaning existed with that name, try using your imagination before you search it on a work computer.

Fairview University, in their previous partnership had a minor issue when they turned the name into an acronym and stenciled it on hospital equipment. Do it yourself by writing those two letters in your whiteboard.

Or, the classic, Federal Express before they became FedEx, because in most countries “Federal” means government and slow, very, very slow. FedEx needs to be on time and certainly not slow — seeing the hidden meaning was essential.

Now, my own personal favorite today, the brand Sheetz, which is best consumed via this link, which tells me they know the brand name is amusing. Though, it does have a gastronomic implication that likely doesn’t create a smile in your mind after eating their foot long sub sandwich.

So, how do you avoid this?

Test the meaning with your audiences and there are simple rather inexpensive ways to get a clear picture of what your brand name means in culture. Even if you’ve got an existing brand name and culture has changed around it — like Tsunami Herbicide — a test might identify a need to change or refine your brand name.

Test your meaning before you test your job security. If you run into an amusing brand name story you think needs to be told, please pass it along to AaronKeller@capsule.us.

— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney

Amazon’s patent (U.S. Patent No. 9,280,157) for a “System and Method for Transporting Personnel Within an Active Workspace” has been in the news recently.

The invention is described as a device for keeping human workers safe in an automated (i.e., robotic) work environment.  In the Background, the patent discusses the rapid rise of automation in inventory-handling systems.  “Technological advancements have made an ever-increasing amount of automation possible in inventory-handling and other types of material-handling systems.”  ‘157 patent at col. 1, ll. 7-9.  “However, there may be circumstances where it is necessary for human operators to traverse, or otherwise go onto, an active workspace where the mobile drive units are carrying out their assigned inventory-related tasks.”  ‘157 patent at col. 1, ll. 14-18.  An automated work environment can be dangerous for human workers.  As a solution, the patent proposes a transport device to transport a human worker safely through an automated inventory-handling work area.  The premise, and the described need for the invention, sound reasonable enough.  However, it’s the drawings of this patent that are garnering some unwanted attention.

Amazon worker cages allow users to safely traverse automated work areas.
At least there’s a bench (414) to sit on?

The patent illustrates and describes the transport device as, well, a cage for workers.  The Detailed Description describes the device as a “cage-like structure configured to substantially prevent the user from sticking an appendage through the enclosure.”  ‘157 Patent at col. 13, ll. 51-53.  Importantly, the claims of the patent (i.e. the scope of protection) are relatively broad and do not specifically require the cage-like structure.  Claim 1, for example, is directed to an inventory-handling system to transport a user within a workspace, the system including a first device to transport users within the workspace, a second device to transport users within the workspace, and a management module directing movement of the two devices.  Of course, this doesn’t render the imagery of work cages any less concerning.

A recent study conducted by two artificial intelligence researchers drew attention to the patent.  The authors referred to the patent as: “an extraordinary illustration of worker alienation, a stark moment in the relationship between humans and machines.”  News of the patent quickly reached major outlets and social media.

Amazon’s Senior Vice President of Operations, Dave Clark, responded on Twitter:  “This was never used and we have no plans for usage.”

This patent, the resulting blowback, and Amazon’s response highlight a couple of important points about patent protection.

First, patents (and, typically, patent applications) are publicly accessible documents.  At the heart of the patent system is an exchange.  The inventor obtains the right to exclude anyone from making or using the invention, but in exchange, must disclose that invention to the world.  Thus a company seeking to obtain a patent, and particularly a high profile company like Amazon, should keep in mind that every word and drawing will be viewable by the public.

Second, Clark’s statement that the company has no plans to implement the cages is a reminder of the value a patent can have.  A patent grants the owner a right to exclude others from practicing the invention.  A patent owner need not actively practice the invention herself in order to enforce it against others.  Even when a company is not looking to implement a particular invention, an issued patent on the concept may provide a leg up on competitors.  The relatively broad claims of the Amazon patent, which do not rely on the cage design, allow Amazon to exclude its competitors from employing a system for transporting humans through an automated work space.

— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney

Trademark enforcement, particularly in an age of social media and internet shaming, is tricky business.  Some brands (I’m looking at you, Louis Vuitton) seem to have enough market share to ignore the social backlash from their heavy-handed demand letters.  But companies that lack that kind of brand power could benefit from a bit more finesse in their enforcement efforts.

Aloha Poke Co. is a Chicago-based poke restaurant.  Poke—a traditional Hawaiian dish of raw fish—has spread through the mainland in the form of fast-casual rice bowls topped with colorful veggies and sauces.  Aloha Poke opened its first store in 2016.  The company now boasts 15 locations across the U.S., including one right here in Minneapolis.  Aloha Poke holds two trademark registrations, one of which is a word mark for ALOHA POKE.  Despite the questionable trademark use of a word as ubiquitous as “Aloha,” the Trademark Office registered the mark without a single Office Action.  The Trademark Office only required Aloha Poke to disclaim rights to the word “poke.”

Recently, Aloha Poke sent cease and desist letters to various poke shops across the country having “Aloha” in their names.  “Aloha Poke would prefer to settle this matter amicably and without court intervention,” the letter read.  “We therefore request that you immediately stop all use of ‘Aloha’ and ‘Aloha Poke.’”  That doesn’t sound particularly amicable.

At least some of the restaurants receiving the letter were native Hawaiian-owned.  Tasha Kahele is a native Hawaiian and the owner of what was formerly the Aloha Poke Stop in Anchorage, Alaska.  After receiving Aloha’s letter, she changed her shop’s name to Lei’s Poke Stop.  Aloha Poke’s demands that native Hawaiian people stop using two Hawaiian terms is not sitting well with many.  Many have called Aloha Poke’s efforts a clear case of cultural appropriation.  An online petition demanding that Aloha Poke stop using “Aloha” and “poke” has garnered over 150,000 signatures.  Last week, hundreds of people gathered in protest outside the company’s Chicago headquarters.

In a statement on its Facebook page, Aloha Poke explained its reasons for sending the letters, indicated its respect for the Hawaiian culture, and apologized for “the confusion that this has caused.”

A company is wise to monitor and enforce its trademark rights.  And indeed, Aloha Poke’s potential claims against poke restaurants with similar names do not appear legally frivolous on their face.  But in terms of public image and even cultural awareness, Aloha Poke could have gone about its enforcement in a different way.

– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

A portmanteau is a linguistic blend of words in which parts of multiple words are combined into a new word. Common language examples include smog, which is a combination of the words smoke and fog, and motel which combines motor and hotel.

Some big companies used the portmanteau technique to develop their names. Microsoft is a portmanteau of microcomputer and software. Groupon combines group and coupon.

However, sometimes companies refuse to admit that their portmanteau name doesn’t work.

Consider this manufacturer of pool maintenance products.

Yes, I get that they slammed “pool” and “life” together to get their name, but no matter how many times you look at this name it is hard to not see “Poo Life” isn’t it? And who wants to live a “poo life” anyway?

Here is another one. Yes, I see what they did here by combining “smart” and “tours.” But step away from the page for a second and look at it…what the heck is a “smar Tour” (or did you mean “smarT ours)?

Portmanteau names can be very good when the combination makes sense, but you have to have some common sense (as in most things in life). Combining words together to make a brand name can work or can look very stupid. Don’t be stupid!

– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

Summer is in full swing and that means baseball is top of mind for many of us. As a professional name developer, I continue to get a charge from the names of minor league baseball teams. Following up on my previous post on minor league baseball team names here are some controversial team names:

All of these names were controversial when they were introduced. Think about it…who wants to support the El Paso Chihuahuas? However, according to the brand name developer, Jason Klein of Brandiose, being controversial was the intent.

Today these franchises are successful examples of branding with great ticket sales and high merchandise sales.

Obviously, these are fun names and minor league baseball is all about fun. However, the genius in these names is not that they are just fun…the names leverage a bit of history and are familiar to the target audience.

Take the El Paso, TX Chihuahuas as an example. When the name was introduced there was an uproar in the local community about the derogatory nature of the name. Shortly thereafter, articles of support started appearing (such as this one) and the name became a rallying point.

The same thing was true with the Hartford, CT Yard Goats. Yard Goat is a relevant name in Hartford as “yard goat” is railyard slang for the switch engines or terminal tractors that shuttle train cars between different locomotives, and Hartford has a strong rail presence.

In the 19th century the leading industry in the Lehigh Valley was iron production, and therefore the IronPig name makes sense (“pig iron” is the term for the raw iron that gets melted down to make steel).

Using a “safe” name might seem like a good idea, but safe names are generally mainstream names that don’t stand out.

Finally, please recognize that I’m not advocating “alphabet soup” names that seem to be in vogue with startups. If a name has some relevance, but is different enough to be noticed, then it might be worth the risk in the long run!

— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney

 

Earlier this month, the United States Postal Service (USPS) was ordered to pay $3.5 million in damages to a sculptor for copyright infringement.

Seeking a unique redesign for its “Forever” stamps, the USPS searched stock photos for images of the Statue of Liberty.  They found a particularly striking photo on Getty Images and paid $1,500 for a license.  Between 2010 and 2014, the USPS produced and sold 4.9 billion Forever stamps featuring the Statue of Liberty photo obtained through Getty Images.  There was only one problem—this was not the Statue of Liberty.  Instead, the photo was of the Lady Liberty replica statue displayed in front of the New York-New York Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas.  The differences may be subtle, but on a side-by-side comparison, the distinction becomes clear.

On close inspection, you can even see the small plaque affixed to the crown of the Las Vegas statue.  “This one’s for you, mom”–the sculptor’s dedication to his mother-in-law.

The USPS discovered the mix-up in 2011 after only a few months of production.  They stated that they still would have selected the image had they known it depicted the Las Vegas statue, and continued producing the stamps.  Robert Davidson is the sculptor of the Las Vegas replica statue.  Recognizing that the USPS was profiting from his original work of art, Davidson sued the USPS for copyright infringement.

After a two-week bench trial, the court found in favor of Davidson.  The $3.5 million damages amount was calculated as a 5% royalty on the USPS’s profits on the stamp.

 

How can someone claim copyright on a replica of a famous statue?

The short answer is: it’s not an exact replica.  As the court in this case explained, “a work of art need not be wholly original to be copyrightable.”  Rather “it need only be a new and original expression of some previous work or idea.”  The standard for obtaining any copyright protection is relatively low.  To demonstrate that Davidson’s statue is eligible for copyright protection, he need only show a “modicum of creativity.”  In a 1991 case, the Supreme Court described the level of creativity required as “extremely low” and stated that “even a slight amount will suffice.”  Feist Publ’ns, Inc. v. Rural Tel Serv. Co., 499 U.S. 340, 345 (1991).  In addition, to obtain protection for his sculpture, Davidson needed to show some nontrivial variation from the New York statue that distinguishes it in some meaningful way.

The court found that Davidson met this burden.  The court seemed particularly persuaded by Davidson’s testimony that he sought to give his sculpture a more “feminine” and “fresh” face, as compared with the “harsher” and “more masculine” look of the original.  Questions about the application of societal beauty standards to the Statue of Liberty aside, the court determined that the softened jaw line, rounded face, and modified eyes and lips were sufficient for copyright protection in the derivative work.

 

Since the USPS obtained rights to the image through Getty Images and paid a licensing fee, how was this an infringement?

This was my first question when I learned the USPS paid a licensing fee for the photo.  However, it turns out the photo itself was an infringing work.  According to Davidson’s complaint, the photographer took the photo and posted it for sale on Getty Images without Davidson’s permission.  Thus although USPS paid a licensing fee to the photographer, the license was still based on use of an infringing, unauthorized work.  Continued sale and distribution of the photograph, whether by the photographer or USPS, constituted additional infringement.

 

Isn’t this protected fair use?

The USPS raised the issue of fair use as a defense to the infringement.  Fair use does not have a clear-cut definition.  In determining whether an otherwise infringing use constitutes fair use, courts look to four factors: (1) The purpose and character of the use; (2) The nature of the copyrighted work; (3) The amount of the copyrighted work that was used; and (4) The effect of the use on the author’s market.  The USPS’s argument for fair use relied in part on its low profit margin on the stamps and a lack of any harm to Davidson’s ability to capitalize on the sculpture.  The court sided with Davidson.  As the court explained, although the profit margin for individual stamps was low, the USPS collected over $70 million in pure profit from the stamps.  The court also noted that the USPS never offered a public attribution or apology to Davidson.

 

Shouldn’t the sculptor have sued the photographer instead of the USPS?

It seems Davidson had options here.  Both the photographer and the USPS unlawfully used Davidson’s work.  The photographer produced and sold a derivative work (the photo) based on the original copyrighted work (the sculpture).  The USPS then reproduced and sold the same infringing photo.  Both the photographer and USPS used, and profited from, Davidson’s underlying original work.  It is likely that Davidson also could have sued Getty Images for displaying and licensing the infringing work.  It seems Davidson probably made the strategic decision to sue the U.S. government, rather than the photographer or Getty, as the potential for damages was considerably higher.

— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney

A dog toy display at a local pet store caught my attention recently.

I did a double take on seeing the familiar fonts, coloring, and packaging.  Not long after, I happened to find these at a different pet store.

Once again, the familiar labels, coloring, and bottle designs caught my attention.

While certainly reminiscent of the actual brands, these all appear to be clear examples of parody.  The Chewy Vuiton case is particularly instructive here.  In that case, Louis Vuitton sued dog toy manufacturer Haute Diggity Dog for trademark infringement and dilution over a Louis Vuitton-themed dog toy.

The court held that the dog toy was indeed a successful parody, and Haute Diggity’s use of CHEWY VUITON did not constitute infringement or dilute the Louis Vuitton trademark rights.  In analyzing Haute Diggity’s parody defense, the court defined a parody as a work that (1) references the original/famous brand, (2) but makes clear that the work is not the original/famous brand, and (3) communicates some articulable element of satire, ridicule, joking, or amusement.  While recognizing the similarities between the dog toy and Louis Vuitton’s designer bags, the court also articulated several differences.  For example, the court highlighted that the dog toy is smaller, plush, and inexpensive—clear distinctions over LV purses.  The court characterized the dog toys as “simplified and crude,” rather than the “detailed and distinguished” purses.

While Jose Perro, Dr. Pooper, HeinieSniff’n and the others I recently stumbled on are probably parodies as well, they beg the question of where the parody line falls.  The Chewy Vuiton court made clear that there must be some readily identifiable differences between the original mark and the parodied work.  But how many differences are enough?

Consider the Snif peanut butter jar, for example.  While the words and the items themselves are different, there seems to be some room for suggested association between peanut butter and dog toys.  Peanut butter is frequently used as a dog treat by many owners.  Surely a dog owner might believe Jif peanut butter had entered the dog toy market.

What do you think?  Are all of these clear cases of parody like the Chewy Vuiton toys?

Although perhaps the most important question is: why are there so many dog toy parodies?

-Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash Name Development

When you finally identify a name for your business, product or service, you must conduct proper due diligence to ensure that you have a legal right to use the name. Trademark searches are mandatory and I’d strongly recommend talking to a great trademark attorney. A little upfront time and money can save you a ton of heartache and cash at a later point (if, for example, the name you decide to use is challenged by someone who is already using a similar name).

One of the other things you should do is conduct foreign language checks using native speakers to identify if the name has unfavorable meaning in a foreign language. Even if you do not plan to market in a foreign country, you do not want your name associated with unfavorable meanings. Here are some examples that prove the point:

  • Barf Detergent – In Persian apparently Barf means snow. But can you imagine the conflict in the mind of an English speaker when seeing a detergent called Barf?

  • Vicks – When Vicks was introduced in Germany, somebody forgot that the German pronunciation of “v” is “f” which made their “Vicks” brand name sound like slang for sexual intercourse (the name in German speaking countries is now Wick which translates correctly).
  • Scat Airlines – An airline based in Kazakhstan. Not sure if an English speaker would fly them.

  • Emerdata – This is the reincarnation of Cambridge Analytica. I find great irony in the fact that the name translations in Portuguese and Italian refer to the act of defecation.
  • IKEA – IKEA has a unique naming convention that often leads to translation errors. For example, some product names sounded like sex acts. And in many cases, IKEA names just sound amusing to English speakers:

Perhaps there is an alternative strategy to conducting a disaster check on international translation. What if you actively looked for names that translate well across the major languages of the world? As an example, one of the reasons that Kit Kat is so successful in Japan is the name “Kit Kat” famously translates to “You will surely win.”

“Good Translation” might be an excellent naming strategy!

— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney

Branding a social movement is tricky.  Many individuals following (and leading) social movements tend to view IP rights as antithetical to the spirit of the movement itself.  Moreover, success in the PTO for these types of marks is by no means guaranteed.  The purpose of a trademark being to identify a source for goods or services, efforts to register the names of social movements are often met with refusals for failure to function as a trademark.

Organizers of the Women’s March held in Washington, D.C. last year are facing opposition in their attempt to register the brand name.  Shortly after the march itself, Women’s March, Inc. filed to register WOMEN’S MARCH as a trademark.  The proposed mark is for use with certain clothing items and for promotion and lobbying services related to women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and racial equality.  The application faced two Office Actions, including one refusal for failure to function as a trademark.  Women’s March, Inc. overcame the refusals, and the mark published for opposition in March 2018.

Several parties have now expressed an interest in challenging the mark.  Organizers of fourteen so-called “sister marches” across the country filed an extension seeking additional time to oppose the mark.  Women’s March Los Angeles also filed a letter of protest challenging the mark as generic.  The protest letter included evidence pointing to genericness of the phrase, such as Wikipedia articles discussing the 1789 “Women’s March on Versailles” and the 1956 “Women’s March” in South Africa.

The groups opposing the WOMEN’S MARCH mark cite fears that Women’s March, Inc. will use the trademark to charge licensing fees and severely restrict usage of the mark by smaller march organizers.  Women’s March, Inc., however, maintains that filing the mark is a “matter of course.”  Bob Bland, co-president of Women’s March, Inc. stated: “We have to be able to control it or else anyone could use it.  We need to be able to protect the brand, which represents the Unity Principles and is rooted in Kingian Nonviolence.”

While a registered trademark can help a movement shape and protect its identity, movement organizers seeking to protect their brands should consider the potential backlash in both obtaining and enforcing IP rights.  Attempts to protect the brand may appear exploitative and cause divisions within the movement.

Interestingly, I did not find any trademark applications or registrations for the Women’s March three faces logo, which appears prominently in the company’s branding.  Organizers might have more success (and face less backlash) seeking protection for the logo than for the standard character mark alone.