Showing posts with label abandonment. Show all posts
Showing posts with label abandonment. Show all posts

Tuesday, September 10, 2013

Despite Legal Threat, Rights to MUMBO Sauce Trademark Stay in Chicago

Argia B. Collins' Chicago Area Restaurant

"Mumbo sauce" is sometimes used as the colloquial name for a tangy sauce served in Washington, D.C. restaurants and local eateries. However, a legal challenge to the validity of the name as a unique trademark appears to have been resolved in favor of the Windy City as the owner's locale.

The Washington Post describes the D.C. sauce's flavor as somewhere between barbecue and sweet-and-sour sauce.  The sauce is also sometimes called "Mambo sauce."  It is a versatile condiment that can be used for anything from fried rice to ribs or wings.

The Chicago Tribune reported in 2007 that Argia B. Collins, who died in 2005, and who had been one of Chicago's premier African American restauranteurs, first coined the term in the 1950's.  Collins' heirs ultimately transferred the rights to the name to Select Brands, LLC.

According to the Select Brands' website:  "A perfectionist when it came to his restaurants, Argia B. was not satisfied with the bland, watered-downed sauces served in other establishments or the tart, over-powering national brands sold by restaurant supply houses....Drawing on his southern roots, he wanted to create a sauce with the savory flavors reminiscent of the homemade Sunday dinners that he had enjoyed on his family's farm."

An image displayed on the Select Brands' website documents Collins' use of "Mumbo Bar-B-Q Sauce" in 3 flavors.

Capital City's Mumbo Sauce
In the 1990's, Select Brands LLC filed for a federal trademark on "MUMBO" for barbecue sauce in International Class 36, and it was granted.

Subsequently, a petition to cancel this trademark on the basis that it had become the "generic" name for a type of sauce was filed by Capital City, LLC, the makers of Capital City Mumbo Sauce, a D.C.-based company.

The petition cited printed materials taken from several different websites that showed a variety of sauces described as unauthorized "Mumbo sauces."

The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board was not persuaded, however, finding that while this evidence showed "some generic use of the term 'Mumbo' in connection with sauces," that evidence consisted of printouts from only a few websites, and was not an overwhelming evidence of widespread generic usage.

Further, the Board seemed persuaded that Collins' heirs had undertaken serious efforts to police what they deemed as improper use of the trademark, and did not find the level of widespread and unrestricted usage necessary to deem a registered mark totally unworthy of protection.  The Board refused to cancel Select Brands' trademark.

The federally registered Mumbo trademark will therefore remain owned by Select Brands LLC.

However, in the event that Select sues Capital or the other unauthorized Mumbo sauce users for trademark infringement, the jury and judge would get the final say in the matter, as genericness as well as lack of likely confusion can be used as complete defenses in an infringement case in court.

Saturday, December 8, 2012

Ghosts of Christmas Past: Gimbels Department Store

One of the most fascinating traits of trademarks is how they become part of our shared culture, seeping into our daily lives in a way that we don’t even realize until they are gone but not forgotten.

Some trademarks persist for generations, as others fade into memory as they are abandoned, only to reappear in movies, creating a sense of nostalgia.

Case in point:  You may have noticed the reference to Gimbel’s Department Stores in the popular holiday movie Elf.

Gimbels was actually once the largest department store chain in the world.  

Gimbels was so successful, that in 1922 the chain went public, offering shares on the New York Stock Exchange (though the Gimbel family retained a controlling interest). 

By the time of World War II, profits had risen to a net worth of $500 million, or over $8 billion in today’s money.

Gimbels New York flagship store was located in the cluster of large department stores that surrounded Herald Square – the current home of Macy’s.

By 1987, Gimbels no longer existed as a department store chain.

However, a small souvenir store in Boothbay Harbor, Maine, actually still owns the federal trademark, as it has existed as “Gimbel & Brothers Country Store” since the early 1970’s.

Indeed, Director Jon Favreau reportedly paid the country store $5,000 in licensing fees to use the Gimbel’s name in Elf.

Friday, July 6, 2012

Understanding Trademark Bullying

Many successful companies seeking to aggressively protect their intellectual property portfolio of valuable brands have been accused of becoming “trademark bullies.”  Their accusers argue that rather than using a reasoned, measured approach to address actual commercial threats, these large brand owners deliberately use the specter of civil litigation to threaten alleged infringers into submission.

Trademark infringement litigation may be brought either in federal court, or can also be commenced by opposing or seeking to cancel trademark applications in the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) in a lengthy and byzantine administrative proceeding that can last years and cost the parties thousands of dollars.  Because the cost of litigating trademark disputes can be prohibitive, especially for smaller companies or individuals, many accused infringers choose to settle or otherwise resolve their conflict without the merits of the underlying conflict ever being adjudicated.

Consequently, commentators -- and sometimes even the brands’ own customer base – have vocally accused some brand owners of overzealously enforcing their perceived trademark rights against others in a manner that smacks of bad faith or anticompetitive conduct used to squelch competition or free speech.

Why would savvy and well-represented companies sometimes risk going too far and potentially alienating their own customer base?  While every case is different, under existing U.S. Intellectual Property law, an established brand may very well face a Hobson’s choice:  risk the ire of an angry mob, or face ongoing brand erosion and even extinction in a world of ever-expanding fakes and imitators.  A few examples of alleged "trademark bullying" warrant mentioning:

  • Chick-Fil-A sells more than $4B of sandwiches each year.  The company’s humorous “EAT MOR CHIKIN” trademarked slogan held up by aggrieved cattle (see right), became an instant hit for the company’s efforts at marketing and promotion.  When a small local farmer named Mr. Muller-Moore sought to federally register the “EAT MORE KALE” slogan in the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, the corporation opposed his application on the grounds that his mark was likely to cause confusion with their slogan.

  • Hansen Beverage Company, maker of the popular “MONSTER ENERGY DRINK” sent Rock Art Brewery a letter demanding that Rock Art cease and desist its use of “VERMONSTER” as a trademark for beer.  Ultimately, after a public outcry on Twitter, the parties settled their dispute outside of court, with Rock Art permitted to keep selling their brew.

  • Non-profit Susan G. Komen for the Cure opposes dozens of trademark applications for wording that includes “FOR A CURE” or “FOR THE CURE.”  When the charity opposed an application for “MUSH FOR THE CURE” sought by a local non-profit, it became national news. 

So what do each of these four examples have in common? Each circumstance may seem like an example of brand protection gone awry, and perhaps they are.

However, Difficult Legal Lines Must Inevitably Be Drawn

It is worth reminding their critics that if each of these brand owners had not acted to draw a line in the sand, they would undoubtedly face the prospect of closer and closer copyists, and eventually encounter even more widespread infringement.  Where any specific line between infringer and innocent victim is drawn in each case is another matter, but it is clear that a legal line still must be drawn somewhere, and the clear incentive for brand owners under current law is to be zealously protective of their investment in their brands.

One legal reason for brand owners to be zealous is that in the event of a brand owner’s complete failure to act, their targets may be entitled to legally rely on the affirmative defense that their delay has been inexcusable.  This potentially crippling defense is known as “estoppel by laches” or “laches” for short.  The laches defense is also sometimes described as "estoppel by acquiescence."

Similar to an undefined statute of limitations, laches may be available as a defense when an infringer was actually known about by the Plaintiff, or even should have been known about under the circumstances, and the delay in bringing suit was inexcusable.

An essential element of laches is the requirement that the party invoking the doctrine has somehow changed its position as a result of the delay.  In other words, the defendant is now in a worse position than at the time the claim should have been brought.  For example, the delay in asserting the claim may have caused the defendant to open up more stores, hire more employees and build up its own reputation in reliance on the brand owner’s unfair inaction.

Even worse yet, if a brand owner fails to act against numerous infringers in the marketplace, it may very well face the dire prospect of losing its trademark altogether under a doctrine known as “genericide.”  

Some words that started out as brand names and “killed” by such widespread genericide are: aspirin, bundt cake, cellophane, dry ice, escalator,
 granola, kerosene, linoleum, minibike, nylon,
 pogostick, tarmac, thermos, touch-tone, trampoline,
 yo-yo and zipper.

In each of these cases, the brand owner failed to act to sufficiently police the marketplace to stop widespread third-party unauthorized uses.  Ultimately, these erstwhile brands passed into the netherworld of “dead” trademarks, devoid of legal protection altogether.

But Are These Extreme Historical Examples of Genericide that Can’t Recur Today?

Harris Interactive released a list of products ranked by brand equity, a measure of the brand's popularity with U.S. consumers.  Among the top 10 are Ziploc food bags, Hershey’s Milk Chocolate Candy Bars, Kleenex Facial Tissues, Clorox Bleach, WD-40 Spray Lubricant, Heinz Ketchup, Windex Glass Cleaner and Campbell’s Soups.  In other words, some of the most valuable and well-known trademarks in the world.

It is clear from this list alone that success in today's marketplace can be a double-edged sword.  The companies who manufacture these products have done an incredible job in advertising and marketing them, so successful in some cases that the brand name is in danger of becoming a genericized trademark.  If the companies on this list aren't zealous, they could end up losing the trademark for the products that they have worked so hard to market successfully.

Ultimately, trademark law is intended to protect consumers and companies from confusion with established brands.  Quality control and brand reputation are crucial in today's marketplace, and zealous trademark protections are a perfectly logical and legal way to protect customers from fraud, and to give companies the tools they need to protect their valuable investment.  In conclusion, in this age of rampant counterfeiting and infringement, it is important to fully understand why in their zeal to protect their valuable brands, aggressive tactics can seem like a viable option for brand owners, even if sometimes they risk going too far.