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Criminal Justice & Legal System

Trademark disputes popping up around Michigan

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FLICKR USER JOANNA BOURNE / FLICKR
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Interested in Michigan craft beer? If so, you may have heard about a certain trademark dispute: the larger Bell’s Brewery filed a complaint against the fledgling Innovation Brewing. Bell’s believes Innovation’s name is too similar to Bell’s trademark, “Bottling innovation since 1985.”

Some say Bell’s is bullying the smaller brewery. But others point out that naming conflicts are common in Michigan, with so many breweries and distilleries popping up – and if trademarks aren’t defended by uses that are deemed similar to the point of confusion, their value can be lost.

Bell’s has had to use a Lansing PR firm in response to the uproar of bad press caused by the incident.

A similar trademark dispute has cropped up in Traverse City. Brilliant Books received a “cease and desist” order from Bookspan, a subsidiary of Time Warner. Why? Because it used the phrase “Book of the Month Club” to describe its book selection service, which grew in popularity last holiday season.

“So many folks are using ‘Book of the Month Club,’" said Peter Makin, one of the owners of Brilliant Books. “We had no idea that anyone could possibly own that particular term. So we did it in all innocence, thinking it certainly described us providing a monthly book service.”

The term “Book of the Month Club,” however, has been a trademark since 1926 and is used as an example by law schools to teach students about trademarked phrases. But it didn’t occur to Makin that this might be the case.

“I know that might seem a little naïve,” he said. “But if you Google ‘book of the month club,’ there are literally millions of entries and there’s a couple other book stores just up here near us, in the northwest of Michigan, that have a book of the month club.”

Now that the complaint has been filed, however, Brilliant Books is moving forward as best it can.

“We don’t have resources at all to fight this, or even to begin to fight this,” Makin said. “It would be tens of thousands of dollars just to take it to court. But we’ve had a couple of legal folks tell us that because of the common usage, we would potentially win, and they would risk losing their rights, but I don’t need to be the poster child for that. I don’t have the tens of thousands of dollars that it would take to prove that particular point. It’s way easier for me to simply say, ‘okay,’ and change the name of our service. And that’s what we’re doing now. We’re actually having a little competition on social media to try to get folks to come up with a good name for us.”

The competition, Makin said, is well underway. As soon as the winner is chosen, the store will work on changing its signage and materials to reflect the new name.

“There are potentially a few thousand dollars’ worth of posters, inserts, cards, preference cards – all sorts of things – that all need to be done all over again,” he said.