Trademark disputes are inevitable. Every year, the United States Patent & Trademark Office (USPTO) processes hundreds of thousands of trademarks applications. The fact that the country isn’t currently engulfed in an epidemic of legal trademark disputes is a testament to how efficient the application screening process at the Trademark Office is. Contrary to popular belief, trademark disputes are not just limited to global multinational companies. They can involve anyone. For instance, a Hollywood superstar may suddenly question the rights of an ordinary working mom: Case in point, the dispute involving Jessica Alba and Bunmi Laditan.
About the Case
Actress Jessica Alba is the owner of “The Honest Company,” which is described as an ‘eco-friendly baby product’ brand. Bunmi Latidan is the writer behind the popular blog The Honest Toddler, which gives an amusing take of life from the perspective of a toddler. The brand is currently in the process of being expanded into TV series. Both brands are well received by the public. And both are locked in a dispute.
Trouble began in September when mommy blogger Laditan tried to register a trademark for her brand “The Honest Toddler.” It did not take long before she got a reaction. The Honest Company contested her application claiming that it would cause confusion among the public–claims that Laditan believes have no merit, particularly because both companies work in different markets.
“I don’t plan to create lotions.” Laditan said during an interview. “That’s not what I’m about. I’m a writer. I like writing.”
Buoyed by the success of her satirical blog and Twitter feed, Latidan’s dispute has attracted a lot of public attention with over a quarter-million Twitter followers and more than a 100,000 followers on Facebook rallying to her cause.
In response, The Honest Company has opened a website explaining its stand, and even published a snarky letter mailed by Laditan, a possible smear tactic. According to a Christopher Gavigan, a co-founder of the company, the company is not considering the option of backing down. Doing so in his opinion would be a big business mistake. “We have rights in the class that she wishes to file in. If we don’t take steps to protect our rights, we’ll lose them gradually over time.” Gavigan believes that capitulating to Laditan would send the wrong message to other business with similar names or designs.
It was not always this way. In the beginning, Laditan had a pleasant relationship with The Honest Company, so much so that she was interviewed on the company’s blog. However, her assumption that the two brands could coexist was shattered when she received a ‘friendly’ notice from the company requesting that she abandon her trademark. The company even offered to help her with the process.
The cordial relationship rapidly spiraled into a case of vitriolic rhetoric when it became evident that neither party was willing to back down from its claims. Laditan has reiterated that she does not want to abandon her trademark application, but is willing to sign a non-compete agreement to quell any possible future confusion. The Honest Company however does not agree with this offer. Instead, it is offering to license the rights to the name back to Laditan for free, after her application is withdrawn—an arrangement that would allow both parties to function with the same name with no infringements.
However, as appealing as the offer might be, Laditan is weary of the long-term implications. As she pointed out, agreeing to a licensing arrangement would leave her at the mercy of The Honest Company, if it should ever decide to change the terms of the agreement.
So who is Right?
As can be expected, opinions on the case vary. Supporters of The Honest Company insist that the company is well within its rights to insist that Laditan refrain from infringing on their mark. Others consider the company’s approach to be heavy-handed and nothing short of bullying.
A key point in The Honest Company‘s defense is the fact that it holds several registered marks that are similar to The Honest Toddler, one of which is The Honest Baby. USPTO laws frown on trademarks that appear identical or similar to already existing marks. The company also owns the rights to the domain name, HonestToddler.com, which it acquired months before Laditan began her blog.
Given these details, The Honest Company is well within its rights to suggest that allowing the “Honest Toddler” brand would lead to confusion and affect its market share. But as the dispute continues, so does Laditan’s popularity. With thousands of fans backing her, she is quickly gaining enough muscle to take on the company. She already has a book called “The Honest Toddler: A Child’s Guide to Parenting”, and is pursuing a possible TV deal, with the support of Sex and the City producer Darren Star, who has optioned the rights to the book.
As the search for a resolution continues, the debate of who is in the wrong persists within the court of public opinion. Most mothers believe that The Honest Company is treating Laditan unfairly.
The case has dragged on for months, and may likely last for a few more. However, Gavigan is optimistic that a resolution will soon be reached, saying, “She’s making it bigger. It is not bigger. It is very simple. Let’s have a conversation and come to the table.”
Having lawyers present should help.