The Oatmeal Sued Again – This Time for Trademark Infringement

One of the Greeting Cards available on TheOatmeal.com

I suspect he has a harder fight on his hands this time around.

Ars Technica released a story this week that The Oatmeal (aka Matt Inman) is going back to court, courtesy of Oatmeal Studios. Oatmeal Studios is a greeting card company that’s suing the artist for trademark infringement because he’s selling greeting cards on The Oatmeal website.

Matt became more infamous than ever with his legal issues related to FunnyJunk earlier this year. I think that was a pretty easy fight for him to win, but this time he has a more formidable opposition.

According to the USPTO, Oatmeal Studios has been selling greeting cards under this brand since 1978 – that means they’ve been selling cards since before Matt was born. In 2004, the company registered the trademark “Oatmeal Studios” for use on “greeting cards, gift cards, occasion cards, paper party decorations, writing pads, note pads, and memo pads.” That means no one can start using “Oatmeal Studios” as a trademark on these or similar products anywhere in the United States after the mark was registered.

Matt has had his site since at least 2009 according to the WhoIs records. He started drawing comics and now he also sells greetings cards, prints, mugs, t-shirts, stickers and posters on his site.

I suspect Oatmeal Studios thinks “The Oatmeal” is too similar to “Oatmeal Studios” so they want to shut down at least the greeting card arm of his operation. Since they have the federally registered trademark, they might succeed, but I think there’s a strong argument that the marks are different enough and the products are different enough that Matt could be allowed to sell his cards because no consumer would ever confuse the two products.

Let’s take a brief look at the factors the court looks at when deciding the likelihood of confusion.

  1. Strength of the Plaintiff’s Mark: “Oatmeal Studios” for a greeting card company sounds like an arbitrary mark to me, which is a pretty strong mark. This makes it more likely that consumers will be confused about the difference between “Oatmeal Studios” and “The Oatmeal.”
  2. Degree of Similarity between the Marks: The marks are pretty similar. One has an added “the” and the other has “studios.” I think the fact that Matt doesn’t have “studios” or something along those lines as part of his name helps him. “Oatmeal” describes the company on one side but “Oatmeal” describes him as a person on the other.
  3. Proximity of Products: Matt sells his cards on his site. Oatmeal Studio’s cards look like the cards I see in Walgreens and stationary stores. The fact they’re not sold in the same places helps Matt’s case.
  4. Likelihood that the Plaintiff will Bridge the Gap: These companies both sell greeting cards, but I doubt Oatmeal Studios will be selling signed prints, posters, mugs, t-shirts, or stickers anytime soon.
  5. Evidence of Actual Confusion: Has anyone been confused about the differences between Oatmeal Studios and The Oatmeal? I doubt it.
  6. Defendant’s Good Faith in Adopting the Mark: If memory serves, Matt’s alter ego The Oatmeal came from his activities in the gaming world. It had nothing to do with Oatmeal Studios. I suspect when he started his site to share his comics that he wasn’t thinking of creating a line of greeting cards.
  7. Quality of the Defendant’s Product: Go check out Oatmeal Studios’ website. I see no similarities between these cards and The Oatmeal’s greeting cards except that they’re both on paper. I think they’re of equal quality as paper products, but when you look at the quality and characteristics of the artwork, they’re not similar at all.
  8. Sophistication of the Buyer: People who buy The Oatmeal products specifically seek out Matt’s work. They will not even thing for a second that Oatmeal Studios is his work.

I think there’s a good chance that Matt can argue that there is no likelihood of consumer confusion when it comes to these two brands. The names may be similar, but I think the products are different enough that Matt has a good shot at winning. I hope this case also inspires Matt to register his trademark for his products to avoid similar problems in the future.

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The North Face vs The South Butt Trademark Saga

 

North Face vs South Butt, Ruth Carter, trademark infringement

The North Face vs The South Butt, photos by TerryJohnston and JL Johnson

The North Face Apparel Corp. is well-known for their outdoor apparel. When I lived in Oregon, I became quite familiar with their brand. Their tagline is “Never Stop Exploring.” In 2010, The North Face sued The South Butt, LLC for trademark infringement when the company started selling apparel with a similar name, logo, and tagline. The South Butt’s logo uses a similar font as The North Face and incorporates a set of curved lines, similar to The North Face’s log. The South Butt’s tagline was “Never Stop Relaxing.” The South Butt even tried to sell the brand to The North Face for $1 million. When I first saw a South Butt shirt, I thought it was hilarious and I knew it was a parody of The North Face, but I figured it wouldn’t last long on the market.

The two companies settled this dispute with an injunction that prohibited The South Butt from using The North Face’s trademarks or any mark that was similar to The North Face’s without permission. The trademark laws generally prohibit you from unfairly riding another brand’s coattails for your own benefit, confusing consumers about what the quality and source of the good they’re buying, or otherwise damaging another brand’s reputation with your trademark.

Fast-forward to the summer of 2012, The North Face is back in court asking a judge to hold the owners of The South Butt in contempt. According to the report, the owners of The South Butt started a new company, Why Climb Mountains, LLC, and they are selling apparel under the brand “The Butt Face” with the tagline “Never Stop Smiling.” The logo also features curved lines which are similar to The North Face’s logo.

The North Face is claiming that The South Butt owners are violating the injunction with this new line of apparel. They commissioned a survey that found that 35% of respondents associated The Butt Face logo with The North Face brand. The judge is expected to decide whether The South Butt owners violated the injunction that prohibited them from using a trademark that’s similar to The North Face.

I understand why a company would want to create a parody of an existing company’s brand, but this story makes me wonder, “Why would you do it twice to the same company if you ended up in court the first time around?” On the flip side, this story shows that there is a market for parody brands which, if a company was looking to expand its market, that would be one option to consider.

If you’re considering using a trademark that might be confused with your competitors’, please consult a trademark attorney in your community before you invest too much time and energy into creating that brand.

If you want to hear more of my thoughts on this topic, or if you think this post is too long to read, I made a video.

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Hat tip: JD Supra