We have previously written about the importance of protecting intellectual property related to your business. The United States is a consumer culture, which means that brand names, logos and other identifying insignia are often crucial to a company's success. Protecting intellectual property can include many actions, including registering trademarks and patents and pursuing litigation if others unfairly usurp or copy these materials.
That being said, the legal remedies meant to protect patents and trademarks are sometimes abused, and small business owners can easily become victims of that abuse. In many cases, the abusers are larger companies with the money to go after every perceived threat to their trademarked names and logos - no matter how ridiculous those perceptions may be.
One of the biggest trademark "trolls" in recent years has been Monster Beverage, makers of the highly caffeinated Monster Energy drinks. A recent news article discusses a 2012 case in which Monster went after the creator of an online forum called "MonsterFishKeepers." It is a website for people who enjoy owning large predatory fish. The legal trouble began when the forum's operator filed for a trademark of the name and logo. He wanted to sell t-shirts to defray the monthly site and server costs.
The online fish forum has about 100,000 members. By comparison, Monster Beverage is worth $28 billion and is partially owned by Coca-Cola, both of which suggest that the company is in no danger of losing business due to organizations with faintly similar-sounding names (especially if these organizations are not rival businesses).
Yet in 2012, Monster sent the forum owner a harsh cease-and-desist letter. In most cases, these letters are enough to strong-arm small companies and organizations into changing their name or the names of their products. Very few companies have the money to defend against litigation, even when the allegations of infringement are weak.
In this particular case, however, the forum owner was lucky to receive help from a group of law students participating in a pro bono legal clinic. After working on the case for the past few years, the group of aspiring attorneys recently won a decisive victory against Monster Beverage.
Although Monster is an egregious example, there are many other giant companies that flex legal muscle simply because they can afford to do so.
If your small business has become involved in a trademark or copyright action and you're not sure what to do next, please discuss your rights and legal options with an experienced business law attorney.