Kellogg's Stakes Claim To Toucans, Mayan Imagery; Issues Cease-and-Desist To Guatemalan Non-Profit

from the too-bad-the-court-of-public-opinion-doesn't-accept-settlement-offers dept

When it comes to preventing "morons in a hurry" from mistaking "Unrelated Product or Service X" for "Unrelated Product or Service Y," no one seems to be quicker on the draw than large corporations with nothing to lose but a public relations battle.

Overlawyered points us in the direction of the latest entrant in the Misguided Trademark Defense SweepstakesTM. Kellogg's has apparently decided that the Maya Archaeology Initiative is treading dangerously close to its breakfast cereal turf. A cease-and-desist letter was sent to the non-profit group after Kellogg's discovered MAI's brazen use of a natural, tropical bird in its logo, specifically one with an unusually large nose that may possibly be used to discover the great flavor of fruit. (Or something.) Lowering the Bar has more details:
MAI, a non-profit that supports education for Guatemalan children (as well as archaeology), got a cease-and-desist letter from Kellogg's lawyers in July saying that Kellogg was concerned about an application to use the logo in connection with clothing, given that Sam also appears on clothing. Kellogg said it was also concerned about the use of "Mayan imagery" in the mark, saying that Sam also sometimes appeared in a similar setting.
Kellogg's must have some serious doubts about these fast-moving morons if it's truly concerned that children may end up with a shirt featuring the mascot of a non-profit entity rather than a finely crafted Toucan Sam shirt conceived by a marketing department and (possibly) manufactured by children in their same age group. Even more amazing is the fact that Kellogg's feels pursuing a claim against a non-profit group somehow is the right thing to do.

To its credit, MAI seems to be handling the situation well, issuing a solid statement (via Sarah Mott of the World Free Press Institute) pointing out the clear differences between the two toucans:
Mott noted the differences between the two toucans, including coloration, beak shape, and the fact that MAI's bird is based on birds that actually exist in nature. Like other such birds, MAI's bird does not have a name. Also, MAI's logo includes a Mayan step pyramid and is egg-shaped, so it is more than just the bird. MAI doesn't plan to sell cereal, and so "[u]nless either of these toucans or their purposes change, there would be no incentive or reason for MAI to associate with Kellogg" and no likelihood of confusion.

Not only that, but Kellogg's bizarre claim to Mayan imagery (w/r/t Toucan Sam) is also groundless. Mott visited Kellogg's websites to see what sort of "Mayan imagery" it was employing, and came up damn near empty-handed:
Mott said she had looked at Kellogg's websites in an effort to explore this claim. The only imagery she could find that was even "vaguely Mayan," she said, was on the Froot Loops site, which includes a number of "Adventure" games set in various locales. Generic pyramids do appear in one of those, she noted, but there doesn't appear to be anything distinctively Mayan about them.
It gets better/worse. Mott points out that the "the only quasi-Maya depicted there is not depicted favorably:"
Disturbingly, the villain in this Kellogg Adventure and its related games -- and the only character who is of color [other than the birds] -- is a "witch doctor" with a cackling screech. Apparently, he is supposed to be a Maya. At best, this is culturally insensitive. I would characterize it as a demeaning caricature of an advanced and ancient civilization about which your game developers know nothing.
This situation has led to some other amusing comments. Dr. Estrada-Belli (MAI) stated that Kellogg's claim was "a bit like the Washington Redskins claiming trademark infringement against the National Congress of American Indians." And the MAI itself has released a statement saying that it has "no present intention of directly challenging Kellogg's disrespectful treatment of Mesoamerican indigenous culture."

As it stands now, both parties are in settlement talks, but the stench of trademark-bullying is already starting to descend on Kellogg's vitamin-fortified shoulders. And more evidence continues to amass on the relative "soullessness" of lawyers. You would think that someone on the legal team might say, "You know, there's no way we come out of this looking good" or better yet, "There's no way the Mayan Archaeological Institute is part of this complete breakfast," but, as we've seen here at Techdirt time and time again, the urge to protect "intellectual property" tends to make a mockery of the first word in that phrase.

Filed Under: toucans, trademark
Companies: kellogg, mai

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  1. icon
    G Thompson (profile), 8 Sep 2011 @ 10:21pm

    A Toucan is the national Bird of Belize, you know that Central American nation full of MAYAN ruins!

    Maybe Kellogg's should stop and think a bit and consider what happened to Warner Bros when trying to lay claim to the Tasmanian Devil called Tassie.. oops!

    As Sam would probably squawk -

    "Follow my nose! It always knows!"
    "The flavor of effluence! Wherever Kellog's lawyers go!"

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