Can a gang become a brand? This is a question asked in the new Netflix show, Trigger Warning,  produced by and starring Michael Render, AKA Killer Mike, one half of the Grammy-nominated rap group Run the Jewels.

Killer Mike of Run the Jewels performing at Pitchfork Chicago on July 19, 2015 (Photo Credit: Me)

In episode three, “White Gang Privilege,” Mike explores America’s love of the Outlaw, real and imaginary, and typically white: Al Capone, Tony Soprano, Tony Montana, Michael Corleone, Johnny Cash, Gordon Gecko, and Hells Angels, to name a few.  The episode begins with Mike asking: How is it possible for Hells Angels, a known biker gang, to sell t-shirts on Amazon? And what’s stopping black gangs from doing the same thing?

As Mike drives to a trap house in Atlanta to find out, he comments that “even though black gangs … are as well known as the Hells Angels, they haven’t been able to cash in and trademark their brands in the same way.”  So he meets with Crips gang members Yayo, Murdo, AC, and Newny to discuss legitimate business ideas, like zipper and button manufacturing, and, eventually, the gang lands on a new brand of soda: Crip-a-Cola.

Crip-a-Cola packaging as shown on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

Spoiler alert: The episode proceeds to follow the gang through all of the typical startup business challenges: getting a loan (or at least trying), creating a minimum viable product (needs more sugar), working with a graphic designer (his first time working with a gang), consulting a beverage industry expert (impressed by the polished product), focus-group testing (everyone is afraid or skeptical at first, especially Mario!), advertising (a music video like commercial), and making that first sale (at a local farmer’s market), all while handling a new market rival (Blood Pop soda produced by the Crips’ rival gang, the Bloods).

Considering everything that went into the episode, and the seriousness of the effort, I was left scratching my head over the obvious, and perhaps true-to-life, startup oversight:  where’s the trademark lawyer?  I spotted at least four issues where a good trademark lawyer could have really helped.

Trademark Notice

Do you see the little circle-R next to the word Crip-a-Cola on the product packaging?  That means “registered trademark” and indicates that Crip-a-Cola is federally registered in the United States.  The only problem is that it’s not registered.  In fact, there isn’t even an application pending!  We’ve blogged before about misuse of the trademark registration symbol here (fraud?) and here (false advertising?).  A good trademark lawyer would have corrected that to a “TM” and filed an intent-to-use application before going live on Netflix (or even to that first farmer’s market).

Clearance

Another possible problem a trademark lawyer could have helped with: Clearance.  Can the Crips actually use “Crip-a-Cola?” despite at a minimum, perhaps calling to mind Coca-Cola?  While “calling to mind” is not infringement, does Crip-a-Cola step to closely to Coca-Cola, since Coca-Cola is a famous brand, and able to wield the full power of anti-dilution law?  What has Coca-Cola done with similar attempts?  A good trademark lawyer would investigate and find out: of course, Coca-Cola will protect its corner, just take a look at the mark CropaCola, which popped up in 2014, and which Coca-Cola quickly opposed, on likelihood of confusion and dilution grounds, asserting the following:

[Coca-Cola] is the world’s largest beverage company, serving more than 1.6 billion consumers each day, in more than 200 countries around the world.  [The] COCA-COLA brand is the cornerstone of its portfolio, which presently includes fifteen billion dollar brands.  COCA-COLA and DIET COKE are the top two soft drink brands in the world. . . .[T]he ‘CROPA’ term in [CROPACOLA] is confusingly similar in sight and sound to the ‘COCA’ term in [COCA-COLA], containing the same number of syllables and a similar phonetic impression, which is compounded by the addition of the ‘COLA’ suffix, in and identical manner as the use of [Coca-Cola’s] COLA suffix.”

Seems plausible that Crip-a-Cola could expect the same treatment from the largest beverage company on Earth.  This is where having a trademark lawyer in your gang would really help.  For one, to identify issues like these (never mind taste infringement) and identify strategies for going forward, but more importantly, to look for defensible legal positions and creative solutions, for example, perhaps seizing on this line in Coke’s opposition: “Furthermore, the ‘CROPA’ term has no independent meaning, further failing to distinguish it from [Coca-Cola].”  (emphasis added).  Here, Crip-a-Cola may have an advantage: unlike “Cropa”, the term “CRIP,” does have several independent, distinct meanings (perhaps the most helpful is the possible backronym: “Common Revolution In Progress.”) and is likely famous, or infamous, in its own right.

Ownership

What else could a good trademark attorney help with?  How about determining ownership?  Absent a legal entity to own the CRIP-A-COLA mark and the related business, Yayo, Murdo, AC, Newny, and Killer Mike would own Crip-a-Cola jointly as individuals in a general partnership, the worst form of legal entity, due to the shared, personal, and unlimited legal liability each partner shoulders. Better to form an LLC at least, not only to more cleanly own the trademark, but also to remove personal liability, formalize ownership, management, and tax decisions, and adopt buy-sell provisions.

Furthermore, what about competing claims of ownership? Is there an official Crips entity that could claim false association?  Maybe – one trademark application filed July 5, 2018 for the mark CRIPS for “association services” and “Organizing chapters of a Community Revolution In Progress club and promoting the interests of the members thereof” suggests that an entity called Crips, LLC, may have been formed to claim leadership of the Crips.  This would be something any good trademark attorney would investigate, and develop a strategy for dealing with.

Legal Notices

Finally, the last issue in the episode I spotted, where good trademark lawyer would lend a hand, arises from the fine print claim made at the end of the Crip-a-Cola commercial (NSFW):

The fine print states that “unauthorized use of the Crip-a-Cola font is prohibited by law.”  The problem? Fonts, or typefaces, are only indirectly protected by law, and not in gross.  Sure, if your typeface is displayed as a result of computer software code operating on a device, then copyright protects the computer code necessary to display the typeface as a font. This is the main reason why certain fonts are licensed. But if the typeface is “copied” or used without authorization through other means, there is no recourse under copyright law.  Instead, one would have to turn to trademark protection of the stylized mark, which, absent a federal registration would be limited geographically by common law rights based on use, perhaps as narrowly as Atlanta or the State of Georgia.  And except for the famous typefaces of famous brands (for example the Coca-Cola script), such rights would be further limited by the goods in connection with which the typeface is used, to prohibit use on only identical or related goods (for example, complimentary goods, or goods within the likely “zone of expansion”), in this case, rival beverage or food products. So the claim that the “unauthorized use of the Crip-a-Cola font is prohibited by law,” while not entirely untrue, is mostly inaccurate.

Outlaws are known for having their criminal defense attorneys on speed dial.  Maybe it’s time to add the number for a good trademark attorney.

Better Call Saul? Only if he practices trademark law!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

You may recall that DuetsBlog informed you in May of 2016 (here) that Beyoncé filed suit in New York federal court against a company and its owners who were using the mark Feyoncé on apparel and other products, such as mugs. She has now dismissed the lawsuit—likely based on a settlement (although the settlement has not been reported yet, and if there is a confidentiality provision in the agreement we may never know for sure).

Beyoncé was understandably troubled when the company began using both Feyoncé (rhyming with her name, the only difference being the beginning letter) and “Single Ladies,” which is the same name as Beyoncé’s famous Grammy award winning Song of the Year. In her complaint, Beyoncé explains that the song “tells the tale of female empowerment – the protagonist celebrates her newly found status as a single woman in a dance club telling her ex-boyfriend (who is jealous of the attention that she is receiving from other men) that if ‘you liked it, then you shoulda put a ring on it.” Beyoncé alleged that defendants were “seeking to capitalize on the notoriety of ‘Single Ladies’… defendants are selling merchandise bearing the ‘Feyoncé’ mark – a misspelling of ‘fiancé’ intended to call to mind ‘Beyoncé’ and her famous song.”

Beyoncé brought a motion for summary judgment. In denying the motion, the court found that there were genuine questions of fact regarding whether there was a likelihood of confusion. It was not enough that the company had tried to “capitalize off the exceedingly famous ‘Beyoncé’ mark.” There were still questions as to whether consumers would believe that Beyoncé was associated with the ‘Feyoncé’ products.

Beyoncé takes intellectual property rights seriously (as we all should). You may recall we blogged about her efforts to protect intellectual property related to her daughter Blue Ivy Carter, here, here and here.

We have likely not seen the last of Beyoncé’s efforts to protect intellectual property.

From time to time, I post squirrelly thoughts. Today, I wonder: Should a large company with famous, distinct trademarks sometimes hold back from aggressively enforcing those trademarks, even when doing so might at first appear to be a useful competitive strategy? I’m sure many executives at McDonald’s–the worldwide fast-food chain that it is so ubiquitous The Economist uses the prices of the Big Mac to measure purchasing power parity throughout the world–are questioning some past enforcement decisions.

If you haven’t heard, the European Union Intellectual Property Office (EUIPO) issued a decision cancelling McDonald’s “Big Mac” trademark registration within the European Union. Although the decision was based on certain procedural and evidentiary issues, it resulted from a proceeding brought by McDonald’s European competitor “Supermac’s,” an Irish fast-food burger chain opened in 1978, in response to McDonald’s aggressive enforcement tactics.

Supermac’s offers a similar cornucopia of comfort food items, including chicken nuggets, french fries, and the “Mighty Mac,” which is:

A succulent double burger complete with two 100% Irish beef patties, melted cheese, crispy lettuce, diced onion with ketchup and burger sauce served in a toasted sesame seed bun.

Sound familiar? Here’s how McDonald’s describes the Big Mac:

Mouthwatering perfection starts with two 100% pure beef patties and Big Mac sauce sandwiched between a sesame seed bun. It’s topped off with pickles, crisp lettuce, onions and American cheese for a 100% beef burger with a taste like no other. It contains no artificial flavors, preservatives or added colors from artificial sources. Our pickle contains an artificial preservative, so skip it if you like.

Perhaps for these reasons, McDonald’s vigorously opposed Supermac’s trademark registrations a few years ago, arguing that the similarity between the names “McDonald’s” and “Supermac’s” (the Mc/Mac usage) would cause confusion among consumers.

Which one is the Big Mac, and which is the Mighty Mac? (hint: in order)

In 2017, Supermac’s retaliated against McDonald’s enforcement activities, seeking cancellation of McDonald’s own flagship marks. Central to Supermac’s narrative is McDonald’s “trademark bullying”–a topic we’ve discussed generally on DuetsBlog numerous times. Specifically, Supermac’s argued that McDonald’s purposefully engaged in anticompetitive conduct, including “registering brand names . . . which are simply stored away in a war chest to use against future competitors.”

It is not readily apparent that EUIPO ruled against McDonald’s on grounds related to bullying or overly-aggressive enforcement because, ostensibly, the ruling is based on McDonald’s failure to prove genuine use of “Big Mac” as a burger or restaurant name–which seems hard to believe given, among other things, The Economist’s Big Mac Index. However, Supermac’s is calling this a victory for small businesses, and a win in “a David versus Goliath battle against trademark bullying by a powerful multinational.” As a result of EUIPO’s ruling, companies may now freely use “Big Mac” throughout the entire EU. McDonald’s has said it intends to appeal the ruling.

EUIPO’s ruling seems absurd, but it makes me wonder if McDonald’s could have avoided this ruling, and the trademark bully label, by taking a less aggressive stance in enforcing its trademarks. Instead of seeking to prevent registration of the Supermac’s and other marks in a transparently-competitive posture, McDonald’s could have decided to target its enforcement on certain products and names (e.g., Mighty Mac), or simply compete on the basis of quality and price. McDonald’s could have also considered creative ways to discourage Supermac’s from using similar marks, employing humorous methods akin to Bud Light sending a medieval jester to deliver a cease and desist message on a scroll to Modist Brewing. Increasingly, brands need to seek a balance between uncovering and prosecuting all possible misuses and not enforcing rights at all. This latest EUIPO may, at its heart, be a lesson in more selective enforcement.

Update: This article was referenced, and Kyle was quoted, by the Washington Post on February 11, 2019.

– Mark Prus, Principal, NameFlash

Mastercard has become the latest company to shift to a “no name” approach to branding.

Of course, they aren’t the first to do this (see Nike, Starbucks, Apple, Target, etc.). We are living in an image-driven world (e.g., Instagram) so this trend is not surprising.

A Mastercard spokesperson said: “As the consumer and commerce landscape continues to evolve, the Mastercard Symbol represents Mastercard better than one word ever could, and the flexible modern design will allow it to work seamlessly across the digital landscape.”

One thing that many people forget is the millions (billions?) of dollars invested in the Mastercard name itself. And yes, that Venn diagram logo design is on every single credit card that Mastercard offers. It is no surprise that “…over 80% of people recognized the brand without the name.”

Does this trend mean that professional logo designers are more in demand or professional name developers are doomed? Nope. Mastercard could not have started with a snappy logo and assumed that everyone would get it. They spent years investing in their brand name and now they can reap the benefits. But you can’t just skip to the “image only” logo design. You have to create the meaning first, and that requires a great brand name (and logo!).

Who comes to mind when I list the following character traits: lives in a dystopian metropolis, has a deceased parent, fights criminals, rides a motorcycle, has seemingly-superhero strength, is fearless, has dark hair, and–oh, by the way–his name is “Wayne.” More than that, you learn all these facts about Wayne by watching a trailer for a series about Wayne on YouTube, which informs you throughout that Wayne is a character “from the guys who wrote Deadpool,” a fictional superhero. Take a look for yourself:

It should probably come as no surprise that many people watching the trailer–myself included–thought this Wayne might be “Bruce Wayne,” the well-known secret identity of Batman. The comments to the official trailer demonstrate as much. Consider, for example, the “top comment” for the trailer:

The Bruce Wayne most consumers know is the wealthy orphan owner of Wayne Enterprises by day, crime-fighting superhero by night. YouTube’s Wayne shares many of the same traits (except, perhaps, the wealth), and one could certainly believe that the Wayne series might be an origin story for one of the most popular superheros of all time. Of course, by the end of the trailer, you get the impression that the Wayne you’re watching probably isn’t (though there’s no disclaimer):

In total there are over 7,200 comments for the trailer at the time of writing this post. Since the official trailer, YouTube has released additional teaser trailers for the series, each making it clearer that Wayne probably isn’t Batman. Yet, viewers still aren’t quite sure:

What I find interesting about these comments is that they are a readily-available (though perhaps unreliable) data set for proving, or disproving, the existence of customer confusion. Assume that DC Comics, the owner of the Batman mark and Bruce Wayne character (which does not appear to have been registered, but to which DC Comics could have common law rights and copyright protection) could sue YouTube for infringement or dilution. Arguably, the comments on the Wayne trailers show that consumers are drawing a connection between DC Comics and the Wayne series given the name, mood of the series, and common character traits with Batman. In this, YouTube may be free riding on Batman’s popularity. Depending on just how many comments reference Batman, the comments themselves could serve as strong quantitative data of confusion–akin to the kind of survey data usually used to prove that element of a trademark claim.

On the other hand, many of the comments for the series do not reference Batman or Bruce Wayne. Do non-references indicate a lack of confusion, or perhaps a confusion that is dispelled quickly after watching the trailers? This relates to the doctrine of “initial interest confusion,” which is temporary confusion dispelled before a sale or some other commercial harm, but still may be actionable because the party creating the confusion free rides on another’s mark to gain attention. Since widespread access to the Internet, initial interest confusion cases have increased tenfold, but courts disagree about the vitality of the rule. Regardless, that confusion appears to persist in this situation–as demonstrated by the comments for each new trailer–shows that the confusion here may be of the continuing and uncured variety on which many trademark claims are based.

Wayne fully releases on YouTube in January 2019. There do not appear to be any lawsuits pending at the moment. And there does not appear to be a “Wayne” trademark registration for the series. But if YouTube (or the series’ creators) file for one, DC Comics could oppose the registration–and has done so for similar marks in the past. We’ll keep you updated with any new developments! In the meantime, let us know what you think in a comment below.

I was not caught up in the wizardry of Harry Potter until last April when I saw “Harry Potter the Cursed Child” on Broadway.

Now I understand the importance of wizardry and the Harry Potter brand.

The most recent battle for Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. (“Warner Bros.”) is related to nine (9) applications it filed for the WIZARDING WORLD word mark and design mark for various goods and services.  Specifically, the company Wizard World, Inc. opposed the nine applications based on a likelihood of confusion with the company’s WIZARD WORLD® mark for “conducting entertainment exhibitions in the nature of conventions for enthusiasts of pop culture genres (e.g., games, toys, media, comic books)” in International Class 41.

Warner Bros. has already successfully obtained fifty-two (52) registrations for marks with “HARRY POTTER,” including eleven (11) registrations for THE WIZARDING WORLD OF HARRY POTTER® mark.  Warner Bros., or related entities, also own registrations related to other characters from the Harry Potter series including: five (5) registrations for marks with DUMBLEDORE and three (3) registrations for the HERMIONE GRANGER® mark.

Will Warner Bros. be able to register the WIZARDING WORLD mark along with its other Harry Potter related marks?

A loyal reader brought to our attention the logo for a rather interesting chiropractic practice:

Without too much pain, can we all agree on the likely inspiration for the above name and logo?

What’s really interesting is that the name Thorassic Park has been federally-registered since 2004, so there is little doubt that the names may co-exist without likelihood of confusion or dilution.

But, what about the visual identities? Don’t they seem far too close, even if the businesses are very different? It appears the chiro-logo is almost a fossil now, having been around twenty years.

How can that be, given the close proximity between Orlando, Florida and Bradenton, Florida? What are the odds that the Jurassic Park franchise owner hasn’t discovered the chiro-logo before now?

And, what are the odds a patient of Thorassic Park in Bradenton might need an adjustment after visiting Jurassic Park in Orlando? Might there be an opportunity for a shuttle service in between?

So, if you are the brand police for the Jurassic Park franchise, does the chiro-logo give you back pain? For the creatives in the crowd, does your spine tingle seeing this painstakingly cloned logo?

This is quite a collection of art pieces, inspired by some pretty recognizable candy bar brands:

The fine print reads: “Each handmade . . . sculpture is a real working whistle!” Parodies, anyone?

Here’s a question, does the functionality of these pieces make them any less expressive as art, any more likely to be confused, any more likely to dilute, any less First Amendment worthy?

— 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.