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!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

–James Mahoney, Razor’s Edge Communications

Back in the ’70s, National Geographic ran a story on Boston firefighters.

The writer mentioned a barb that a fireman tossed his way. “Ya gonna do another silver jets piece, huh?” Adding sarcastically, “Ya know: silver jets of water piercing the dark sky as they bravely battle the inferno…”

I owe that firefighter a debt. Since I read his diss, Silver Jets has been a mental caution sign against veering too far into the preciously romantic. (Well, most of the time, anyway; all us writers occasionally succumb to the siren’s song.)

Which brings me to Moen’s Silver Jets moment: creative work driven by its presumable campaign premise, “It’s about time we recognize all water does for us, and give it the attention it deserves.”

The Moen website has lots of solid information. Most of it is presented well and unambiguously. That’s a good thing, since we generally want only three things from our faucets: style, function, and reliability. Everything else is on the margins.

And yet, even in commodity markets—and maybe especially there—the urge to creatively distinguish the company runs strong. Channeled and managed well, it can produce good outcomes.

But when the primary focus shifts, unnoticed, to the creative idea from the business objective, you can wind up in Pittsburgh when you intended to go to Minneapolis.*

Here’s how I think that happened at Moen:

  • They wanted a new campaign to distinguish the company.
  • Someone(s) got the idea to “celebrate water.”
  • That led eventually to the premise that “Water designs our life.”
  • That led to some excited creative exploration casting water as the unsung hero/benevolent star of human existence.
  • That led to casting Moen as the combination of Alexander Graham Bell and Frank Lloyd Wright when it comes to water.
  • That led eventually to the campaign theme: “Water designs our life. Who designs for Water?”

(Spoiler alert: Moen’s answer: “Moen designs for Water.” Actual answer: Every company that makes something related to water.)

And that’s where Moen’s creative juices really go Silver Jets. Some examples sprinkled throughout Moen’s website:

  • “With 1.5 trillion gallons of water running through our faucets each year, we feel a tremendous responsibility to make sure every one of your interactions with water is a meaningful one.”
  • “Moen products don’t just make you look smart; they leave you feeling inspired.”
  • “As a company we’ve given over to the power and beauty of water. Throughout our history, we’ve learned to respect and honor it. So that makes us a company that not only celebrates water, but that also happens to make faucets.”
  • “Throughout history, water has shaped the world we live in—where we gather, what we do on the weekends and what rooms we make room for. So it’s about time we recognize all water does for us, and give it the attention it deserves.”

Those are some major-league Silver Jets. They speak to lofty aesthetic. They paint glowing watercolor images. They demonstrate what happens when marketing and creative exploration become unmoored from reality and business objectives.

Last, for now, here’s a piece of SethGodin-bait: Predictably, Moen’s creative drift inevitably culminated in a gorgeous, high-budget, 60-second art film designed to…well, you tell me. You can see it here, or by clicking on the “watch the film” link on Moen’s site.

Where did it all go sideways? Around the fourth bullet of the process described above. Creative freewheeling is a necessary part of producing good work. But so is having at least one person keeping an eye on the compass and able to trim the sails.

* Heading north on the Mississippi River will bring you to Minneapolis unless you lose focus and get sidetracked onto the Ohio River, which will bring you to Pittsburgh.

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?

Like many new parents, my wife and I own a Boppy® infant support pillow.  Examining the packaging, I noticed an excellent example of “look-for advertising:”

Typically, look-for advertising is part of a campaign to build consumer recognition of a product design to a level where it can support a claim of “acquired distinctiveness,” that is, the design tells consumers the product comes from a distinct source.  One exception to this process is that a functional product configuration is not distinct and can never acquire distinctiveness – functional features can only be protected by patents, if they meet the requirements for patent eligibility.  We’ve written extensively about these issues here, here, and here.

So, is the “Boppy Shape” functional, that is, unable to acquire distincitiveness?  This expired patent suggests the answer might be “yes,” describing the invention, a support pillow, as follows:

It is generally circular but discontinuous where tapered ends meet, defining a well in the center.

The patent drawings also show the “Boppy Shape” as a preferred embodiment of the invention:

This evidence doesn’t end the inquiry, but it’s strong evidence that the “Boppy Shape” is functional.  The Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure describes patent evidence as follows:

It is important to read the patent to determine whether the patent actually claims the features presented in the proposed mark. If it does, the utility patent is strong evidence that the particular product features claimed as trade dress are functional. If it does not, or if the features are referenced in the patent, but only as arbitrary or incidental features, then the probative value of the patent as evidence of functionality is substantially diminished or negated entirely.

However, even if the “Boppy Shape” itself is functional and not protectable as a trademark, nothing stops Boppy from registering the phrase “Look for the Boppy Shape!” as a trademark, as these registrations show, here, here, and here, or the two-dimensional representation of the shape, here, and doing so is a good move by Boppy regardless of the whether the shape itself can ultimately also be registered.

One reason Boppy might want to do this is because with patent expiration comes generic competition.  And that’s fine – if all this talk about trademark and patent law gives you a headache, you can save a few bucks buying generic ibuprofen instead of brand name Advil – just don’t call it Advil®.

Where we as trademark professionals see generics violating that rule all the time (and counterfeits) is on e-commerce platforms like ebay and Alibaba. Just take a look at these snips from the search results for “Boppy Pillow” on these two websites:

Alibaba:

Ebay:

The listings above are not for Boppy brand pillows. Instead they appear to be generic support pillows, perhaps fairly produced given the expiration of the patent (Boppy owns other patents for other elements of its pillows and other products, which were not examined for this post). But what’s not fair, and what is actually likely infringement, is use of the “Boppy” trademarks to sell generic support pillows.

Based on my review of its product packaging and trademark registrations, Boppy has done an admirable job raising its trademark portfolio. Now the question is, is it time for a pillow fight?

We’ve had a lot of nothing — meaning zero, and the trademark meaning, if any, of zero — on our mind lately, so imagine my surprise to see this soap “brand” for the first time last week in a hotel:

Not sure how to pronounce it, but as we know, there really is no “correct” way to pronounce a trademark, so it could be Zero, or perhaps a telescoped version of Zero Percent, who knows?

What we do know for sure is that neither Zero nor Zero Percent functions as an inherently distinctive trademark to identify, distinguish, and indicate a single source of this body collection:

Why Applicant’s Mark is Deemed Descriptive

“Applicant seeks to register the designation “ZERO%” for bath soaps in liquid solid and gel form; Body lotions; Hair shampoos and conditioners; Shower Gel.” Had applicant not applied under 1(a) and submitted specimens of use consisting of the bottles for shampoo, conditioner, body lotion, shower gel and hair 2 in 1, the mark would likely not have been seen as descriptive.

However the specimen bottles show graphically just what “ZERO%” describes about the applicant’s product. On each bottle is the following legend, explaining the mark:

 “ZERO sulfates

 ZERO parabens

 ZERO phthalates

 ZERO artificial colours

 ZERO animal testing”        

Thus it appears that “ZERO%” refers to the ingredients that are NOT present in applicant’s soaps and hair care and body lotion and shower gel products.  Sulfates and parabens have long been regarded as suspect with respect to human skin. Testing on animals is considered cruel. The ZERO% describes a certain purity in applicant’s products and a certain ethical sensibility about not making money from suffering animals.

In a parallel situation Diet Coke did very well when Coca Cola produced a ZERO caffeine soda, with, of course, zero calories.  Both caffeine and calories are enemies of healthful ingestion.

Applicant is applying the same logic to its toiletries and hair care products. This is to be applauded, however, the mark chosen, “ZERO%,” even without benefit of an explanation on every bottle, would have to have referred to SOMEthing about the goods. “ZERO%” of what? would be the logical question. And there is the answer, front and center, on the bottle.

Another way to look at this is: if using the name of an ingredient of the goods is descriptive use, then surely using a term that indicates the absence of unhealthy or unethical ingredients would also be descriptive.

Two major reasons for not protecting descriptive marks are (1) to prevent the owner of a descriptive mark from inhibiting competition in the marketplace and (2) to avoid the possibility of costly infringement suits brought by the trademark or service mark owner.  In re Abcor Dev. Corp., 588 F.2d 811, 813, 200 USPQ 215, 217 (C.C.P.A. 1978); TMEP §1209.  Businesses and competitors should be free to use descriptive language when describing their own goods and/or services to the public in advertising and marketing materials.  See In re Styleclick.com Inc., 58 USPQ2d 1523, 1527 (TTAB 2001).”

This descriptiveness refusal might be the most conversational and empathetic explanation I’ve seen over the course of my trademark career. Nicely done, USPTO Examining Attorney Jill C. Alt.

More than 6 years ago, Applicant Gilchrist & Soames, accepted the Examining Attorney’s invitation to amend to the Supplemental Register, for marks only “capable” of becoming distinctive.

In most cases, the attentive owner of a Supplemental Registration, in use for 5 consecutive years, already would have filed for Principal Registration, arguing in favor of acquired distinctiveness.

Gilchrist & Soames hasn’t (yet), and given what Zero has evolved to mean, will the noted parallel to Coca Cola’s Zero soda, cleanse zero to mean “incapable” of trademark status as a soap type?


In terms of zero sum games, in the trademark world, even if Zero and Zero Percent turn out to be generic, perhaps Gilchrist & Soames gained more in marketing than they would lose in trademark.

As we share another Labor Day together on DuetsBlog, we’re thankful for the emotional labor of those on this journey with us, and we hope you agree this effort is a win-win, no zero sum game.

The battle for attorneys’ fees after an intense trademark dispute often leaves many prevailing parties empty handed. This is because the Lanham Act only provides for attorneys’ fees in “exceptional cases.” Congress’s (and courts’) reluctance to award attorneys’ fees stems from the “American Rule,” which provides that each party to a lawsuit is responsible for paying its own fees–unless a statute provides otherwise. But the Lanham Act erects a high bar to obtaining fees by requiring that the case be “exceptional.”

On the one hand, trademark owners should not have to fully shoulder the burden of what often turns into expensive litigation just to enforce their rights. Indeed, the estimated cost of protecting one’s rights can dramatically affect the calculus of whether to sue for infringement in the first place. But on the other hand, trademark violations are sometimes debatable and unclear. In such circumstances, the American Rule provides some protection to litigants who would otherwise be discouraged from seeking redress due to the risk that they might have to pay the defendant’s fees in the end if they lose. Thus, the Lanham Act strikes a balance, providing for reimbursement in cases of brazen and clear infringement–or brazen and clear abuse of the litigation process–while retaining the benefits the American Rule otherwise provides.

The Lanham Act’s fee provision has come up recently in two high-profile trademark cases: one involving Comic Con (reported on previously here and here), the other meme-famous Grumpy Cat (also reported on previously here). But the result was legally different in both cases, with Comic-con obtaining millions in fees under the Lanham Act, while Grumpy Cat obtained nothing under the Act, but recovered nevertheless pursuant to a contract between her and the infringer. What explains the different results?

Comic-con: The Comic Con (short for “comic book convention”) dispute began when the San Diego Comic Con sued the Salt Lake Comic Con for infringing on San Diego’s “Comic-Con” trademarks. The San Diego convention was one of the first comics-fan conventions.  And it is the largest convention of its kind, drawing more than 130,000 attendees each year. Salt Lake’s convention began in 2013, but it has quickly grown to over 120,000 attendees. Thus, it is probably no surprise that San Diego took exception to Salt Lake’s competing event and use of the same “Comic Con” name–though, as my colleague Jessica Alm pointed out, there are many other conventions across the United States using the same name.

San Diego Comic Con sued Salt Lake Comic Con for infringement. But despite the seemingly-debatable nature of the dispute (because the name could be generic, and it would be difficult to prove consume confusion), less than a year ago a jury determined that Salt Lake was liable for infringement in the amount of $20,000. Thereafter, San Diego moved for fees in the amount of $5 million–a little disproportionate, one would think (but perhaps not in view of San Diego’s requested $12 million in damages).

The district court judge granted $3.9 million. The reasons? Salt Lake repeatedly disregarded court rules, violated confidentiality rules, squandered judicial resources by relitigating issues, based arguments on irrelevant law, and attempted to bias the jury during the trial. The judge felt that the case stood out from others due to the “unreasonable manner it was litigated.” Expect an appeal on the $20,000:$3.9 million ratio.

Grumpy Cat: The Grumpy Cat dispute began when Grenade Beverage LLC, which had licensed Grumpy Cat’s trademarks (names and likenesses) to be used in trade dress and advertising for a new line of iced coffee products called “Grumppuccinos,” also used the marks in connection with a new coffee bean product without Grumpy Cat’s permission. Like the Comic Con litigation, the parties also litigated this case for three years. In addition, a jury awarded Grumpy Cat over $700,000–much more than San Diego Comic Con. But only $1 of that was for breach of the licensing agreement.

But unlike the Comic Con litigation, a federal judge recently denied Grumpy Cat’s request for approximately $320,000 in fees under the Lanham and Copyright Acts. The judge did, however, granted Grumpy Cat fees under the licensing agreement with Grenade Beverage–though, the judge said that there needs to be additional briefing on how much in fees can be awarded under the contract. Central to the judge’s decision on the Lanham Act fees issue was the fact that Grenade Beverage had not acted frivolously or in bad faith when they adopted an interpretation of the licensing agreement that entitled them to use Grumpy Cat’s marks in a line of Grumpy-Cat- branded “coffee products,” rather than just iced coffee. This reasonable difference of opinion–and, presumably, reasonable litigation behavior throughout the case–did not make out “exceptional” circumstances justifying fees under the Lanham Act.

In general, the Comic Con and Grumpy Cat cases provide two high-level teachings when it comes to fees. First, it is important to choose professional counsel, make reasonable litigation decisions, and take good faith positions throughout the course of a case. Otherwise, that conduct in and of itself may make the case “exceptional,” putting you on the hook. Second, attorneys’ fees provisions in a licensing agreement can serve as a helpful back-up if the Lanham Act fees request fails. But in providing for such fees, one should consider whether it is truly advantageous in the circumstances to remove the American Rule’s protections. That requires some thought…I need a Grumppuccino.

P.S. In April, I wrote about the USPTO’s attempt to obtain attorneys’ fees when it prevails in district court patent litigation. The Federal Circuit rejected this attempt, stating “the American Rule prohibits courts from shifting attorneys’ fees from one party to another absent a ‘specific and explicit’ directive from Congress. The phrase ‘[a]ll the expenses of the proceedings’ [in 35 U.S.C. § 145] falls short of this stringent standard.”

These lime green building sites caught my eye and jogged my trademark memory. First, the future home of the University of Iowa College of Pharmacy, at beam signing, on May 4, 2018:

Second, the expansion of the Metro Transit headquarters near downtown Minneapolis, on June 12:

Of course, the obviously common element of both building sites, besides my iPhone, is the same lime green sheathing, both also branded with the USG and SECUROCK word trademarks.

Then poof, they’re gone, after being covered by some black-colored sheathing, on August 2, 2018:

What’s my point? Actually, I have a few that immediately come to mind, so bear with me.

First, do you suppose United States Gypsum Company views the lime green color of its gypsum panels to be a trademark? Apparently there are no look-for statements on the product itself:

In looking for look-for ads that might draw attention to this particular shade of green as a brand, Green Means Go (scroll down after linking), is the closest I’ve found.

Let’s just say, USG has been far more effective in owning the color red as a band or stripe applied to packaging for plaster products, and the supporting look-for-like TOP RED word mark.

Still, it’s difficult to tell what USG thinks from the general legend used in its online brochures:

“The trademarks USG, FIRECODE, SECUROCK, IT’S YOUR WORLD. BUILD IT., the USG logo, the design elements and colors, and related marks are trademarks of USG Corporation or its affiliates.”

It’s even harder to tell, despite the “colors” mentioned in the legend above, after searching the USPTO, since USG allowed its Supplemental Registration — for what I’m calling the “lime green sheathing” — to expire without first obtaining, or at least, filing for Principal Registration.

The Supplemental Registration described the mark as “the color yellow green (Pantone 375) as applied to the goods.” Namely, “non-metal water-resistant boards and panels for construction.”

Why let it go?

I’m sure the color green is considered difficult to protect for sustainable building materials, but this color mark was narrowed down to the particular Pantone shade. Perhaps the shade changed?

Typically, a Supplemental Registration is considered valuable to a brand owner, while it works to build the evidence necessary to establish acquired distinctiveness for Principal Registration.

In addition, the Supplemental Registration for Pantone 375 was some indication that the USPTO did not view that shade of green as being functional even for sustainable building materials.

We’ll keep watching to see if Principal Registration is pursued.

In the meantime, let us know if you discover any better look-for advertising for USG’s SECUROCK gypsum panel sheathing. Loyal readers know how important look-for ads are for trademark colors.

Last, the now-you-see-them-now-you-don’t green gypsum panels remind me of the lavender color registration I convinced the USPTO to issue for spray in place insulation in 1994, oh the memories!

As I’ve been known to do long before now, this past weekend I found myself gazing intently, this time, into the front label and back copy on this S. Pellegrino sparkling natural mineral water bottle:

Putting aside the question of the shiny red star logo, which we already have bloviated about, here, a few years back — my focus is centered on the surrounding Enhance Your Moments tagline.

No gold star for the brand’s failure to capture federally-registered protection for it, despite the obvious association with SanPellegrino, as shown in results of a simple Google search, here.

Another “no gold star” moment that needs a modicum of enhancement would be the back copy:

Why? As you can see, SanPellegrino has taken a perfectly fine, inherently distinctive, and suggestive trademark, and used it in a sentence (without brand emphasis) in a descriptive sense.

Make sense?

– 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

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?