VirginiaBrandHam

Every once in a while, the word “brand” appearing on product packaging surprises me, because my earlier understanding of the word preceding it spells generic, not brand. Just like the above.

Shopping in Whole Foods this past weekend, the above shown VIRGINIA BRAND designation called out like a neon sign from behind the glass of the meat counter, so I had to capture the image.

When speaking about the risk of trademark genericide, I’ll often refer to nervous trademark types behind the scenes influencing packaging to help educate consumers against a generic meaning.

Some of my favorite examples are Band-Aid® Brand Adhesive Bandages, Kleenex® Brand Tissue, and Jell-O® Brand Gelatin Dessert. We’ve referenced many others in our Genericide Watch.

Yet, there was something different about the VIRGINIA BRAND designation. First, the typical ® federal registration symbol is missing, as most brands worried about becoming generic are federally-registered. What’s more, as much as I love VIRGINIA, the name of a State simply lacks the inherent distinctiveness of the previously mentioned coined words that were made up to serve the specific purpose of serving as trademarks. Coined marks are uniquely susceptible to degeneration through genericide, but inherently generic wording begins and ends there.

To me, Virginia was a type or category of ham, either coming from Virginia or perhaps employing a common type of smoking or curing that originated in Virginia, either way generic, not a brand.

Turns out, VIRGINIA BRAND is a federally-registered trademark for packaged prepared meats, but it appears to be owned by White Packing Co., Inc. of Fredericksburg, Virginia, not Wellshire Farms West of Palm Coast, Florida, the latter trademark owner having used this label specimen to federally-register the WELLSHIRE logo (note the small print indicating MADE IN MARYLAND):

VirginiaBrandLabel

When lots of different and unrelated brands of ham offer Virginia and/or Virginia Brand ham, say Boar’s Head, Sara Lee, Black Bear, Eckrich, can Virginia and/or Virginia Brand really be a brand?

VirginiaBrandHamSpecimen

In other words, if anyone can sell their version of “Virginia Brand” ham, doesn’t that turn the notion of “brand” on its head, or at least on a boar’s head?

Just because someone calls a duck a goose, doesn’t make it a goose, right?

And, in terms of geography, just because someone calls its ham Virginia, doesn’t make it a brand either (especially when it’s made in Maryland or North Carolina).

Let’s just say, I’m more than likely to be confused here. Anyone able to make sense of this brand conundrum? Perhaps an easy job for Dr. Seuss and his famous character Sam-I-Am?

In terms of consequences, might the Virginia Brand federal trademark registration fairly be considered deadwood, suitable for smoking your next Easter Dinner ham?

This past week I’ve been pondering a question of great importance: When might a straitjacket double as a life vest? The answer actually arrived last Monday during INTA’s “The Ethics of Trademark Bullying” panel discussion at the 135th Annual Meeting in Dallas, Texas.

In so many words, our good friend and wise guy Ron Coleman, over at Likelihood of Confusion, described the “trademark bullying” panel as, let’s say, rather muzzled. While I agree that one had to strain to hear any insights, perspectives, or opinions, I prefer the more comprehensive straitjacket metaphor (Hannibal Lecter style) over the mere muzzle, because it obstructs well beyond simple vocal chord vibrations and stills the wildest of “dangerous” body language too, even the likes of this little guy’s gyrations. Yet, Ron critiqued the audible portion of the panel discussion and explained the unfortunate situation this way:

“Similarly, want to talk about trademark bullying?  Briefly mention two or three examples (oddly enough, using “the same examples you might find mentioned in this article) and conclude that they’re not really bullying (kind of like in that article, actually!) (and no — don’t cite the article!  Duh!).  Apologize for not discussing any actual examples of trademark bullying because doing so might offend a the-INTA member company, or, aw shucks, one of my clients, wouldn’t you know? (This actually happened – again resolving, definitively, my original dumb question.)  Then come around to the edgy, original conclusion that maybe we shouldn’t write dumb cease and desist letters any more — you know, what with these crazy kids and their Intertubes and all.”

“It’s easy to crack wise, but the reason, Mr. Wiseguy Blogger, those guys are up there on the panel and you are not is that the people on the panel understand what to say and when to say it.  And when not to say it.”

“And, not to get to all Kurt Gödel about this, but you.  Do.  Not.”

A non-attorney friend of mine recently described how he plans to provide valuable insights and information on his forthcoming blog, but he also “will certainly poke the bear.” The “bear” in his non-legal industry, that is, not a cute, cuddly teddy bear. So, if INTA is an industry bear, Ron, consider it poked (more than a few times). Well, I suppose, it’s not my first time either.

Anyway, back to the problems with INTA’s “trademark bullying” panel discussion (after seeing IPKat’s similar perspective, does that make this post the “tipping point” on the subject?).

In short, Caveat Emptor (“let the buyer beware”) was the word of the hour.

There were so many caveats offered by the moderator at the outset, I lost track of them, except this one: To avoid offending any trademark owners or their counsel, the panel would limit themselves to “just the facts,” no opinions or “judgments” about whether any “trademark bullying” lines have been crossed.

Call me crazy, but I’m thinking more than a few trademark types pay four figures to register for the Annual Meeting, expecting more than legal facts (facts without analysis or opinions can more easily be found on most Big-law firm websites and blogs) — instead, hoping for some valuable insights, perspectives, and well, opinions on the subject at hand, but by all means, answer some questions (or, at least ask some questions of the audience).

Perhaps the juxtaposition of these images says it all:

So, if some other form of “time” actually had “permitted” and the panelists actually had been inclined or “permitted” to share their opinions or “judgments” about the examples or topic, what might you have asked them about trademark bullying?

Last, while we’re on the subject of caveats, INTA might be wise not to forget this one: Caveat venditor (“let the seller beware”). If INTA doesn’t remove the straitjackets from their speakers and also find qualified speakers who won’t self-impose them, the number of trademark types filling nearby hotel rooms to attend the UN-TA may begin to outnumber those paying four figures to register for the official INTA event.

And, recognizing the heavy dose of irony contained in the coming link, when will “ambush marketing” begin to target INTA events?

It’s such a slippery slope.