8 Times Companies Faced Lawsuits for Their Slogans

Flickr User Jason Lam/Flickr User Eden, Janine and Jim

Big companies are careful to protect their trademarked slogans—and for good reason. Failure to do so can see a company lose its trademark for allowing it to become diluted. Trademark law is designed to protect the consumer from market confusion, not to protect established companies from upstarts looking to capitalize on brand recognition. Thus, diligence in protecting a trademarked slogan against copycats—intentional or otherwise—is incumbent on the company. This results in an awful lot of trademark suits. But we combed through the news to pick a few favorites from the (somewhat) recent past.

1. Barnes and Noble vs. Amazon.com

This is a story about how we all took our commerce online in the late 1990s, and how Amazon.com started out selling nothing but books. B&N tried to take their model to the web as well, but their clunkier offshoot couldn't keep up with Amazon's main model of business. By 1999, according to a Wired article, Amazon was responsible for 75 percent of all books bought online, while barnesandnoble.com could claim just 15 percent. Desperate for a way to slow the advance of their competitor, Wired characterizes Barnes and Noble as having "lashed out at Amazon with that most traditional of competitive weapons: the lawsuit."

The suit, filed in May 1997, argued that Amazon's advertised claim to be "Earth's biggest bookstore" infringed on Barnes and Noble's slogan, "World's largest bookseller," and wasn't entirely accurate. Since they didn't actually stock books in-house—ware- or otherwise—but instead had to source them from publishers or distributors, Amazon.com was a book "broker" and not a book "store," the lawsuit claimed. In turn, Amazon countersued for "unfair competition, alleging [Barnes and Noble] improperly omits sales tax for books it sells online."

Ultimately, both companies were allowed to keep their slogans but, as Wired put it, the lawsuit "reinforced the view of Barnes & Noble as an old, tired, unhip giant—exactly the wrong image to project to the burgeoning Web audience."

2. Under Armour vs. Nike

"Ten years ago, Under Armour became a household name when the brand asked athletes everywhere to 'Protect this House.' The response in the iconic commercial, and throughout the years, has been the same: I WILL," Under Armour founder Kevin Plank said in a news release last year.

He was defending his company's slogan against rival Nike, who it turns out also WILL. Baltimore-based Under Armour claimed that their trademarked use of the declarative "I will" in conjunction with advertising dates back to 1998 and is compromised by Nike's recent campaign, which includes taglines such as "I will finish what I started," and "I will sweat while they sleep."

In turn, Nike argued that the generic noun-verb construction need not be trademarked and pointed to this 1995 commercial in which they also paired the words "I" and "will."

Ultimately, the athletic wear powerhouses reached a settlement earlier this year without disclosing the terms.

"The litigation has been resolved on a confidential and mutually agreeable basis," Nike said in a statement. Under Armour, which had requested the rival pay punitive damages, refused to comment because lawsuits are rarely "mutually agreeable."

3. Finish Strong LLC vs. Nike

Under Armour might have been the biggest competitor to accuse Nike of trademark infringement, but it wasn't the last. Just this year, a motivational apparel company in Chicago called Finish Strong LLC filed a suit against Nike for use of their trademarked name on a recent line of shirts.

I guess Just Do It doesn't sell like it used to.

4. Pizza Hut vs. Papa John's

You probably know that Papa John's claims to have better ingredients and, thus, better pizza. What you don't know—because they won't tell you or anyone else—is what exactly those ingredients are, and why they make such a difference. Back in 1998, Pizza Hut, the nation's largest pizza chain, took issue with this ambiguous implied attack on their ingredients and filed a suit that such a slogan was false advertising.

Initially, a jury agreed that there was no scientific evidence to support that one pizza was empirically better than the other. A judge barred Papa John's from using the "Better ingredients. Better pizza" slogan and awarded Pizza Hut $467,619 in damages. However, an appeals court later reversed the decision on the grounds that "better" is a subjective statement of personal taste, and consumers did not rely on the claim to inform their decision. In turn, Pizza Hut appealed this ruling, taking the case all the way to the Supreme Court, who declined to hear it, without comment, leaving the slogan intact.

5. Big Sky Brewing Co. vs. Anheuser-Busch

You may remember the "hold my beer and watch this" web videos created for Bud Light last year, which were written and directed by John Krasinski. If you don't remember them, you have only humorless descriptions to go on because, contrary to the ethos of the internet, they've disappeared. Their removal was part of an agreement reached between Bud Light's parent company, Anheuser-Busch, and Montana-based craft brewer Big Sky. The latter filed a federal lawsuit last year claiming it has held a trademark since 2009 for the phrase “hold my beer and watch this," which appears on some of their beer cans.

"Countless other videos and jokes use the same or similar words as a punch line or hashtag," said Rob McCarthy, A-B’s vice president of Bud Light marketing in defense of the videos at the time. But ultimately, A-B agreed to remove the videos in exchange for Big Sky voluntarily dropping the suit.

6. Chick-fil-A vs. "Eat More Kale"

Perhaps the only thing a fast food chicken sandwich and a bundle of kale have in common is that their respective proponents would like you to "eat more" of them. And that's exactly where Bo Muller-Moore ran into some legal trouble.

The Vermont folk artist became known in the early 2000s for his "Eat More Kale" shirts, which took advantage of the superfood's sudden cultural cachet. Unfortunately, outspoken vegetarians and farmers market aficionados weren't the only ones to take notice. In 2006, Chick-fil-A sent him a cease and desist letter, claiming the shirts infringed on their trademarked slogan: Eat Mor Chikin, often shown sloppily written by a "renegade cow" looking to direct attention away from beef.

The Vermont Arts Council provided Muller-Moore with free legal help, and initially a series of strongly worded letters persuaded Chick-fil-A to quietly back down. However, in 2011, Muller-Moore applied to trademark his slogan and once again heard from the fast food giant.

"Your client's misappropriation of Chick-fil-A's EAT MOR CHIKIN Intellectual Property, to play off of and benefit from the extraordinary fame and goodwill of Chick-fil-A's trademarks, copyrights, and popular promotional campaign, is likely to cause confusion of the public and dilutes the distinctiveness of Chick-fil-A's intellectual property and diminishes its value," the company wrote to Muller-Moore's lawyer.

"My client's phrase shares only six out of twelve of the same letters as your client's phrase and none of the imagery or conceits," came the response. "My client has no cow designs which appear in conjunction with the phrase 'Eat More Kale.'"

Last year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office rejected Muller-Moore's efforts to trademark his slogan. This does not mean he is barred from continuing to use the phrase commercially. But without legal protection, he will likely continue to be subject to lawsuits from Chick-fil-A.

7. NYC Street Artist vs. Apple

Just last month, New York City street artist James De La Vega had his lawyer send a cease and desist letter to Apple for using the phrase "You're more powerful than you think" at the center of their new iPhone 5s marketing campaign.

The inspirational slogan has been part of the artist's "Become Your Dreams" series for close to a decade.

Other companies, like Tory Burch and Amazon, have used De La Vega's artwork and slogans in licensed deals, and he seeks a similar, compensated, arrangement with Apple.

8. Mister Softee vs. Master Softee

No offense to the Master, but this one feels a little bit obvious. Jim Conway, owner of the New Jersey-based Summer staple Mister Softee, filed a lawsuit earlier this year against his former employee for launching a knock-off ice cream truck empire out of Queens. This isn't the first time Conway's company has taken legal action against copycats; the mid-1990s saw more than 10 similar trademark infringement lawsuits against rival ice cream trucks.

Beyond the only-one-letter-different names, there are a number of too-close-for-coincidence similarities between the companies. Mister Softee's slogan is "The Very Best"; Master Softee touts itself as "The World's Best." The trucks look similar and blast a similar (infectious) tune, and both companies feature a conehead mascot complete with a blue suit and red bow tie.

The suit was filed in March, and just last week, a judge ruled that Master Softee owner Dimitrios Tsirkos had "adopted his truck designs with the object of achieving an appearance similar to plaintiff's Mister Softee trucks." In an attempt to stay on the streets, Tsirkos is now revamping the look of his trucks.

June 18, 2014 - 2:00pm
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