What We Learned From the Specialized Trademark Incident…
Part 1 – Always Investigate the Infringer’s Military Service History
People always complain: Why must everything in the law be so uncertain? What happened to black and white rules of law? How come everything involves a multi-factor balancing test that depends upon facts that require a 36-month lawsuit to uncover and a jury three days to decide? Well, sometimes, current events provide us a lesson that does provide us with black and white principles of law.
For example, three months ago the Specialized Bicycle company sparked a wildfire of Internet discussion when it sent a letter to a Cochrane, Alberta bicycle shop requesting it cease from using the word ROUBAIX as part of its name. It seems the bicycle shop decided to call itself “Café Roubaix.” The backlash supposedly went “viral” and even included reports appearing on cycling media outlets. An example of the “jumping on the pile” response from the Internet are the several articles appearing last December on the Velonews website. I especially liked the story objectively entitled: “Specialized’s disastrous trademark case is unnecessary to defend the brand.” So what are the hard and fast rules of law we learned from this incident? Well, here is the first rule: Investigate whether the alleged infringer is a war veteran.
Every story I came across about this matter pointed out that the bicycle shop owner was a veteran of the Afghanistan war. And though I am greatly in favor of veteran rights and accommodations (and was so years before it became Hollywood fashionable to do so), I was not sure what veteran status had to do with trademark rights. Of course, the Internet is never wrong. In discussing the pertinent merits of the Specialized trademark matter, the Internet nabobs would certainly not key onto an immaterial point just to create press? Would they? That would be so highly unusual.
I instruct all clients forming a new business or rolling out a new brand that the best money one can spend is on a comprehensive search to determine what other marks and names may be out in the business world that could pose infringement issues. In this case, the bike shop’s owner apparently opened his shop without even checking the Canadian intellectual property office’s registry of marks. Had he, he would have seen that Specialized owned a registration for the mark “ROUBAIX” for use in connection with bicycles and bicycle components. (Be honest reader, if you saw that registration, would you open up a bicycle shop named “Café Roubaix” without evaluating the trademark risks?) Nevertheless, comment posters vilified Specialized as a trademark bully. So putting aside the question of whether there is any type of infringement between Specialized’s registered mark and “Café Roubaix,” the Internet tells us that mark owners who fear infringement must investigate the veteran status of the alleged infringer before sending out a cease and desist letter. According to the Specialized case, this is a relevant inquiry under trademark law. By extension of this first rule, one must not assert mark rights against a veteran of the Afghanistan conflict. I have no idea what should happen if the alleged infringer has a blemished military record.