Okay, so I changed the words from the penultimate bluegrass song to make a pun on a situation down in North Carolina involving, what else, music and beer. And a little dispute over the name WOODSTOCK.

Apparently, six years ago two people started a small music festival at a restaurant featuring local musicians performing on the back of a flatbed truck, a type of makeshift stage. At the time, the festival was deemed the Popcorn Sutton Jam, the namesake of a local moonshiner.  Then this year, following a spate with the widow of Sutton, the event’s name was changed to “Hillbilly Woodstock”. That’s Woodstock as in the music and cultural festival from upstate New York during the rebellious years of the 1960s. This, as you might imagine, created quite a stir amongst Woodstock Ventures, LC, the owner of the WOODSTOCK mark. Actually, it’s more like a portfolio of marks that includes everything from loungewear to cultural entertainment services for kids. Living up to their name as zealous protectors of WOODSTOCK trademark supremacy, Woodstock Ventures made sure to get a C&D letter out quick.

Not believing that a little music festival serving a niche listening group could raise the ire of a cultural icon with name recognition from here to Vietnam, the bluegrass people “thought it was a joke”.  But as we all know from war stories involving owners of storied trademarks, infringement is no laughing matter.

Perhaps the organizers of the North Carolina festival felt they were making a clever reference to the fabled music fest in a bid to inspire thoughts of nostalgia among concert-goers, but in the bluegrass style of music. Or perhaps the plan was to create a weekend of critique of the debauchery which was largely a byproduct of the counter-culture from the real Woodstock. My spiny senses (and a visit to the website) tell me the latter is probably not very likely, and that the point of the music festival is the very orthodox provision of good music and entertainment, no overt intent to comment on anything.

Those who watched cartoons (or who grew up in the 1990’s, like me - yes, I am really that young) will remember T.V. spots from Saturday morning cartoons for McDonald’s. The spots usually featured some extraordinarily absurd mismatch between kids and reality, such as having recess for every period during school and eating McDonald’s at every meal (I’m sure somebody named Michelle Obama would have something to say about that). The spots always ended with a catchy little jingle: “McWORLD!!! Hey, it could happen!”

So imagine the nostalgia I felt when I saw that Taco Bell, which has announced a totally unique breakfast menu consisting of items like a waffle taco, was bringing in Ronald McDonald to promote its new breakfast menu. Not the Ronald McDonald, the one in the bright yellow suit, goofy red shoes, and the one that gives those with clown-phobia’s the willies. But a person whose name is Ronald McDonald (of which there are, apparently, many). The idea seems clever as a type of advertisement: “Come to Taco Bell for breakfast. Even Ronald McDonald likes Taco Bell for breakfast over McDonald’s”.

Don't worry. This blog has not been hijacked by pirates!
It is often said that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery. That might be true in many aspects of our life, but it isn’t always true for trademark owners, least if the person doing the flattering is ripping you off somehow. But how close does something have to be to truly be deemed an imitation? In the arena of trademark law and unfair competition, you might sometimes be surprised about how close you can actually get to using a trademark that is loosely based on another trademark. To see what exactly I’m talking about, lets grab the proverbial cart and go on a little shopping spree at Trader Joe’s.

Some people (except those on the West Coast, where Trader Joe’s has about 200 stores) may not know what Trader Joe’s is. Trader Joe’s is a specialty grocery store. They sell a lot of the same things that big-box grocery stores do, but they have specialty foods and a lot of the stuff they sell carries the “Trader Joe” name specifically. It is what you might call a boutique grocery store because most locations are small and they cater to customers with specific tastes. In recent years, the store has garnered somewhat of a cult following given the unique products that the store offers including blueberry cultured coconut milk (sounds kind of weird) and spicy seaweed ramen (sounds really weird). My personal favorite is the chipotle seasoned almonds, but I digress.

I’m not much of a country music fan, but I listen to a tune every now and then. I’m not a moonshine fan either, so I won’t ruminate too much on moonshine or country music. Perhaps the two go together just as well as heavy metal and tattoos? But I do know a thing or two about trademark conflicts.

I just happened to be doing a search for “florida” and “oranges” on the U.S. Patent Office’s online trademark database (its a pretty nice tool and a wealth of information, and definitely a great place to start if you want to make sure a choice phrase is available for a trademark, hint hint). I pulled up a recently-filed application for the mark “FLORIDA GEORGIA LINE ORANGE AND PEACH MOONSHINE”. As soon as I saw this search record I was like “Huh, isn’t there a band named Florida Georgia Line? What would they think about this?”

There is a band; they are called Florida Georgia Line; and, oh yeah, they recently filed a trademark for the same name (and the characters “FGL”). The goods and services (as you might guess) cover sound recordings and entertainment services, namely live performances by a musical band. For all those concert goers that demand keepsakes, the band also filed for protection for select merchandise items like T-Shirts and Hats. They filed the trademark on February 13 of this year, but I know that the band has been using the name FLORIDA GEORGIA LINE far before that date (the band claims October 2009). The owner of FLORIDA GEORGIA LINE ORANGE AND PEACH MOONSHINE filed on June 11.