Those are my exclusive rights, hon

Sometimes intellectual property can get you very hot under the collar.

Residents of Hampden, Baltimore are protesting local restaurant owner Denise Whiting’s trade mark registrations for the word “hon”.  They have taken to the streets in large numbers (well, maybe about 50), picketing outside her restaurant “Café Hon” and “Hontown” store with signs like “You Can’t Trademark Our Culture Hon” and “Honicide”.  There’s even a guerrilla bumper sticker campaign (honicide.com) (though the organisers had better watch out – Whiting is registered for bumper stickers).

For those uninitiated in Bawlmerese, “hon” is a local colloquial term of endearment.  It also refers to the Baltimore culture and in particular clothing, with women in “bright, printed dresses with out-dated glasses and beehive hairdos” and men sporting “a general factory or dock worker look”.

There’s nothing per se against a colloquialism being sufficiently capable of distinguishing a trader’s goods and services.  And Whiting has recently made it clear that her registration is limited in scope and that she cannot stop others using the word in conversation.

Unsurprisingly, actions speak louder than words: last year the Maryland Transit Administration sought Whiting’s permission to use the colloquialism in its campaign for a new fare card.  Whiting insisted on “approving each ad, poster and television commercial”, despite the fact that Whiting has not registered “Hon” in connection with transport or ticketing.  The closest she comes is “note cards” and “stationery”. 

That the Maryland Transit Administration was sufficiently litigation-averse to seek Whiting’s approval demonstrates how much power a trade mark registration (and a healthy dose of publicity) can exert on use of the mark even on goods and services other than those for which it is registered.  Though maybe they’re just nervous about Whiting’s track record of tenacity when it comes to the authorities.  In 2009 Whiting made no less than 10 phone calls to various city departments in an unsuccessful attempt to convince them that a large pink flamingo sculpture made of chicken wire and a bed sheet she placed outside her café did not count as a sign and should therefore be exempt from an $800 permit fee.  (In her defence, it was there for seven years before the city complained.)

Of course, not everyone is taking this lying down. Baltimore writer and website operator Bruce Goldfarb’s plans to start selling coffee mugs bearing “hon”, “to provoke [Whiting] into a fight to defend her claim” so that he can “establish that ‘hon’ is in the public domain”.  He calls it “the first shot fired in the Battle of the Hons”.  Obviously he doesn’t know who he’s dealing with:  Whiting shut down a businessman at Baltimore’s international airport doing something similar a few years ago. 

Our advice to Bruce: good luck, hon.  Though whether the residents of Baltimore will continue to patronise Whiting’s café once she’s finished with him remains to be seen.

 

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