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There aren’t too many trademark owners out there who can say they have built a monopoly in a specific name. Just as it is hard for a company to achieve dominance and operate as the sole-provider of a particular product so it is hard for a company to achieve brand name exclusivity. And that’s what this post is about: brand monopolies and the MONOPOLY trademark. It’s a relatively intriguing story about a brand that was built-up, lost, and regained.

Everyone is familiar with Monopoly. Many a family have bonded, torn each other to shreds, and reconciled over a game of Monopoly (sometimes even in a single sitting). It has been an icon of “game night” for years and has been the defining centerpiece of coffee tables and hallway closets for years. And as if that wasn’t enough to pique the interest of even the most bored-of-board game types, McDonald’s annual Monopoly promotion provides a delicious and addicting extension of the game. Elsewhere, you can find Monopoly branded slot machines, an all-purpose calculator, cuff links, and even bathroom fixtures and towels. That has to cover pretty much all bases.

Given all these marketplace identifiers, one would suspect that the brand MONOPOLY is a solid name and not subject to any kind of challenge, especially that the name is “generic” for any type of board game. The hallmark of a generic name is one that broadly identifies a category of products (in this case, board games that put players together in a quasi-free market to buy and sell properties), usually because consumers don’t know any other way to identify the product without using the name. Without ties to a single company as the source of a product, a generic name is available for general use by the marketplace.

Yet that is exactly what a slew of court opinions found in the 1970s when an activist professor sought to name his board game Anti-Monopoly as part of a campaign to inform consumers about the ill-effects a monopoly could have on a marketplace. How could a brand with a 40-year history of success in the U.S. and abroad, with an exclusive hold as the identifier for a special type of board game be in doubt?


 
 
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There comes a time in every company’s life where it just has to take a step back and figure out how to remain relevant or how to create a new realm of relevance entirely. For La-Z-Boy, that time is apparently right now.

When most people think of La-Z-Boy, they probably think of the eponymously named reclining chairs that seem to swallow their inhabitants whole in an all-encompassing air of comfort. You might also think of your old man, sitting in front of the T.V., controller and potato chips in hand, spilling crumbs all over the seemingly implacable leather grain of the recliner.

And therein lies the current predicament of La-Z-Boy: distinguishing itself as a company that provides more than just recliners for older folks. It’s a problem that touches more than just product design and marketing plans, it touches the entire brand. As La-Z-Boy ramps up a marketing plan to make itself relevant to millennials, it is probably also sizing up the issue of how to associate its LA-Z-BOY trademark with more than just recliners. And, of course, I’m sure La-Z-Boy doesn’t want to go the way of Zamboni, Yo-Yo, or Thermos, all of which are now generic trademarks, a problem it could very well face if it doesn’t branch out and make its mark a little broader.

Or is that even the issue? Does a company have to adopt a group of different, unique marks to avoid association with a single product (and thus the problem of genericide)? Maybe not, if the company can successfully win the battle of public rhetoric and the tendency of many consumers to associate a company with one main product with a single name. But this has been hard to do for many companies where they are forced to combat the ever-powerful marketplace, which may be even harder to sway than public opinion during a political campaign.


 
 
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Whoops I did it again: I let this blog go a month without a post. Unwittingly, of course. June was an unusually busy month at the office and I just couldn’t find the time to even catch up on trademark happenings, let alone dedicate the shreds of thought necessary to writing witty pieces for this blog.

So what better way to return from a hiatus but to throw it back to a trademark that was created this day 83 years ago: the Washington Redskins.

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve heard about the struggles the Redskins have had in keeping the registration for this trademark. Most recently, these struggles culminated in a cancellation of the registration for the REDSKINS mark by the Trademark Trial and Appeals Board (TTAB), an arm of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (whose decision was upheld by a federal court). But the war isn’t over because the team will appeal the cancellation decision to the next highest court, the Federal Circuit Court of Appeals; And (given the caliber of the issues at stake in this case including free speech rights under the First Amendment), perhaps all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court.