U-Haul Sends Bogus Legal Threats To Moving Assistance Company Run And Operated By Military Veterans

from the carefully-crafted-suicide-note dept

Happy New Year, readers! Here’s to the first trademark thuggery of 2K18, propelled by U-Haul’s mistaken belief that baseless legal threats are always successful and never result in large amounts of backlash.

A little background: several years ago the US Patent and Trademark Office did Americans the disservice of granting two questionable trademarks to U-Haul for purely descriptive phrases: Moving Help and Moving Helpers. U-Haul believes no one should be able to use either of these two words in association with moving assistance services even though there’s really no other way to succinctly describe offerings of companies in the moving help business.

Years ago, it took a startup that matched up customers with moving helpers to court, claiming everything from trademark infringement to copyright infringement to misuse of trade secrets. It not only sued the startup, but also singled out the husband and wife behind it for separate lawsuits of their own.

Since then, U-Haul has apparently targeted several websites for the use of these trademarked phrases, even if the sites made no attempt to lead users to believe U-Haul was the company behind the websites. In terms of customer confusion, it’s far more likely customers would be baffled U-Haul “owns” the words “moving help” than by any site not affiliated with U-Haul offering assistance with moving. It’s makes about as little sense as granting U-Haul exclusive ownership of the words “moving truck” — something that, fortunately, has not actually happened.

Based on a single courtroom win* and a bunch of successful legal threats, U-Haul has decided to toss its reputation into the internet dumpster. Not content to limit itself to shutting down every use of moving/help/helper it runs across, U-Haul is now in the business of taking jobs away from US military veterans.

*More on that “win” below.

Gregory Sledge owns Veterans Moving Help LLC, a service that puts homeowners and renters in touch with veterans, providing the former with moving help and the latter with a paycheck. Sledge went from being a homeless veteran to owning his own business, and is now helping out fellow veterans with $25/hour jobs.

U-Haul doesn’t care for this. Maybe it has nothing against helping veterans earn income, but that will be the end result of its actions if it succeeds. Sledge’s business has a solid reputation and several satisfied customers. It also has a URL that U-Haul doesn’t want it to have: veteransmovinghelp.com. Late last month, U-Haul sent a cease-and-desist letter [PDF] to Sledge, demanding he shut down his site and surrender the URL to U-Haul. In support of its arguments, it offers its single courtroom victory and a bunch of empty words about infringement.

Your use of MOVING HELP® to promote your directly competitive services is likely to cause confusion with UHI’s MOVING HELP® services and as a result constitutes false designation of origin and trademark infringement under section 43 of the Lanham Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125. The standard for infringement and false designation of origin will undoubtedly be satisfied: The relevant public will believe that there is some connection between the services offered by eMove, Inc. under the MOVING HELP® mark and the services offered by you through your website.

Your conduct also clearly violates the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, 15 U.S.C. § 1125(d), which prohibits using or registering a domain name confusingly similar to the trademark of another person. Again, the standard for cybersquatting will clearly be met: You have taken a competitor’s trademark (MOVING HELP®) and used it as a domain name (www.veteransmovinghelp.com) to drive customers to your website to promote your directly competitive services. This is the very kind of conduct the Anticybersquatting Consumer Protection Act is designed to stop.

These legal salvos make several assumptions — far more assumptions than any morons in a hurry would. Getting help moving necessitates the use of the words “moving” and “help.” Sledge’s use of the words is merely descriptive of the services offered. There is zero chance a consumer would think Sledge’s site is affiliated with U-Haul, especially if they come across his very reluctant recommendation of U-Haul as a moving service.

Sledge’s use of the URL for a business with actual customers undercuts the “cybersquatting” accusations. Cybersquatting laws were put in place to prevent speculative purchases of domain names. They weren’t erected to prevent multiple companies in the same business from using similar descriptive terms in their URLs.

Then the letter gets to the point: putting the “threat” back in “legal threat:”

Enclosed is an article from Juris Discourse, which highlights the efforts UHI and eMove are willing to undertake to end misuse of their MOVING HELP® trademark and other intellectual property. As you can see from this article, we engaged in a contentious, expensive and time-consuming two year battle, obtained a significant payment, and forced HireAHelper to stop using our trademarks. I am sending this article to you so you understand the consequences of your improper use of MOVING HELP® on your website.

It isn’t the victory U-Haul makes it out to be. There was much more in play than incidental use of terms U-Haul managed to secure trademark protection for. The target of that lawsuit – HireAHelper.com — still exists and is presumably solvent, seven years after U-Haul’s “significant” win. U-Haul’s counsel also provides a list of websites it has bullied out of existence. Again, this is evidence of nothing. It doesn’t shore up its weak claims. All it does is show it’s a successful bully. “Might makes right” isn’t a credible legal argument and I’m sure U-Haul is hoping for a quick acquiescence rather than actually having to make supportable claims in front of a judge.

The threats continue:

Should we be forced to pursue this matter further, UHI will seek treble damages, attorneys’ fees, and an accounting of all revenues and profits you have derived from your use of the MOVING HELP® trademark as well as preliminary and permanent injunctive relief and money damages.

No one’s forcing U-Haul to “pursue this matter further,” not even Sledge’s refusal to hand over his website nor his angry post on Facebook. U-Haul has zero obligation to pursue this legal threat. Its stupid trademarks aren’t going to lapse into unenforceability if it fails to bully a veteran into giving up his livelihood. The onus is on trademark owners to protect their trademarks, but that doesn’t equate to scouring the web for common English terms and threatening site owners who have never attempted to portray their offerings as anything more than moving assistance services completely unaffiliated with any nationwide moving company.

U-Haul may have been a successful bully in the past, but it’s made a serious mistake targeting a company run by a military veteran that provides jobs to other veterans. Nothing pisses people off more than a large corporation trampling all over the little guy just because it has the liquidity and a large staff of lawyers to do so. They tend to like it even less when the “little guys” are men and women who have served their country.

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Companies: u-haul, veterans moving help

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Comments on “U-Haul Sends Bogus Legal Threats To Moving Assistance Company Run And Operated By Military Veterans”

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That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

USPTO… can we make them pay the fee to challenge & kill this mark? They caused the problem, they should pay to fix it.

Uhaul – where we gouge you with changing prices, reservations are just suggestions, sure the truck might burst into flames & we’ll sue you for it, and we’ve decided to piss on someone helping Veterans.

So what they have here is a lawyer super eager to get billables up, who chases after everything because he told the client if they don’t sue the orphanage with helper in its name they could lose the entire company.

A company enjoying its control over the market & uses any IP they manage to acquire (despite the fact it should have NEVER BEEN GRANTED) to stomp out even the smallest “competitor”.

While this isn’t ADT levels of stupid, how much you want to bet you get a threat letter from the lawfirm telling you not to repost it because its confidential & to govern yourself accordingly.

JustMe (profile) says:

I will be spreading this story far and wide

Let people know what UHaul is really all about. There are lots of other places to rent trucks, like Home Depot and Penske. I even hear that some US vets are helping people move; that sounds like a worthy endeavor to support.

Also, I’d pitch in a few bucks to help challenge the USPTO decision on GoFundMe.

Brandon says:

The Grand Irony

U-Haul has been doing this for as long as I can remember. But the true irony, in my opinion, is that they used the PODS trademark, in a truly deceptive manner, to promote their U-Boxes. Of course, PODS sued and U-Haul lost (big time). So here they are pursuing trademark claims all over the Internet over a questionable trademark when they feel it’s okay to knowingly use a very recognizable trademark in a deceptive manner.

For reference: https://dockets.justia.com/docket/florida/flmdce/8:2012cv01479/273191

carlb (profile) says:

As long as there are no consequences for a spurious claim, this will continue

Sadly, the lawyers get paid whether what they’re claiming is legitimate or not… so the spurious claims will continue. There’s no reason for them to stop. After all, it’s not as if the law societies will pull the licence of a practitioner who claims something to which they know darned well the client has no lawful entitlement.

The clients reward this behaviour and it’s business as usual. For instance, witness the trademark antics of 1-800-FLOWERS or (worse yet) 1-800-CONTACTS in this FCC consultation:

There was a new freephone area code (1-833) in which the first numbers were put into service June 3, 2017. There are 17,000 toll-free numbers which were set aside because more than one telephone company (or resporg) requested them. Some are merely patterns like 833-333-3333 but some contain digits which spell valuable generic phonewords like “holiday”, “flowers” or “contact”. The FCC would like to auction the lot of these, with a set-aside on a few public safety numbers like 1-833-SUICIDE. The lawyers for 1-800-CONTACTS Inc. and 1-800-FLOWERS are whining very loudly that they think they should simply be entitled to 266-7227, 356-9377 and the like because they spell the generic words “flowers” and “contact” that these corporations want to misappropriate and trademark. Four specific logos with the number 1-800-CONTACTS in various typefaces and background combinations are US PTO registered as trademarks, but the word “contact” itself is generic to everything from contact sports to contact cement. The North American Numbering Plan covers Canada, USA and twenty other nations (mostly former 1-809 points in the Caribbean). There are more than 500 US marks and 80 Canadian marks which contain the word “contact”, most of which have absolutely nothing to do with one specific Delaware-registered corporation peddling cheap disposable contact lenses by mail order. Among the examples cited: “Contact North”/”Contact Nord” is a trademark of a Canadian provincial government for an office which puts students in remote Northern Ontario communities in contact with distance eduction programmes. 1-800-CONTACTS has no Canadian trademarks at all, but feels entitled to dictate to the Ontario government that it (or any of the other entities with “contact” in their names) can’t have 1-833-CONTACT due to some pretext involving the Lanham Act (which isn’t Canadian law)? Excuse me? Who is the sovereign entity here, the Dominion of Canada or some arrogant US corporation.

To add insult to injury, the corporate lawyers attempt to use their registration of more than a hundred domain names (which were made not for any legit product or service offering, but just to keep the names out of the hands of other registrants) to justify their conduct in the FCC proceeding on toll-free numbering. Among those domains? 1800contactssucks.com, registered solely to keep the name out of the hands of legit consumer complaint sites.

Unfortunately, telephone numbers are a finite resource. There are about 7.8 million numbers in a North American area code, as this is limited to seven digits without a leading 0- 1- 555- or 911-. Abusing these resources in the same manner as corporations are already abusing defensive domain registration does adversely affect the network as a whole.

In this case, though, U-Haul has gone one step lower in trying to unlawfully appropriate a domain name with the word “veterans” when they are indeed not a veteran’s organisation. That is misrepresentation and they should be censured for this abuse of process.

Brandon says:

Re: As long as there are no consequences for a spurious claim, this will continue

Couldn’t agree more. My favorite part about all of this is that, technically, U-Haul cannot directly own MovingHelp.com (formerly eMove) without having to be licensed as a full service mover. Yet, over the years, they’ve stopped attempting to make it sound as though they are separate companies. They still claim it’s a “partner”, but the reality is it is wholly owned by U-Haul. Yet they continue to skirt the requirements of a full service mover.

But U-Haul is no stranger to skirting the law. Although I must give them credit for improving the quality of their trucks in recent years, there was a LONG period of time where they knowingly rented dangerous equipment. This is well documented, especially by major news outlets in the early to mid 2000’s.

I have extensive first hand experience with U-Haul and, in my opinion, they are the most unethical company in business today. Even more so than Disney, and that is saying a lot as I reallyyyy dislike that evil mouse.

Anonymous Coward says:

Your company was created to help veterans continue to help others around the world. They have made a huge mistake, You have opportunity, to show the world how they are trying to take advantage over Faithful Veterans…. Soldiers…..Great Company! Veterans have helped our country be free from much danger. Make them shame!!! U-haul that’s horrible I will be sure to let others know.

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