Court Dismisses Dumb Trademark Suit Between Dairy And Fishing Tackle Companies

from the milking-it dept

Part of the fun of covering the sort of silly trademark disputes that we do here at Techdirt is seeing just how far companies, most often large companies, will go in trying to apply protectionist habits where they don't belong. This typically manifests itself in the key marketplace aspect of trademark law, where the brands in question are to be competing for customers who might become confused for an infringement to have occurred. Too often this aspect of the law appears to go ignored in claims of infringement, or else the concept of competitive marketplaces is stretched to the point of absurdity. As I said, this is often times amusing to us, because we're strange.

Take a recent suit brought against Land O Lakes, a company that makes fishing tackle, and Land O' Lakes, a company that makes dairy products.

James Hugunin manufactures and sells fishing tackles under the name Land O Lakes, after a region in northern Wisconsin popular among fishermen. However, a large agricultural cooperative in Minnesota named Land O'Lakes took issue with Hugunin's use of the name. The cooperative, which sells butter and other dairy products, has been using the name since the 1920s. It demanded Hugunin pay for a license to use the name, or give up his trademark.
Here's a fun thought experiment: precisely how many times would the average person have to hit themselves in the head with a hammer before they found themselves standing before a Land O Lakes spinner bait lure trying to decide if it was actually a stick of butter? I have no idea how to answer that question with anything other than: many. But Land O' Lakes is large, and likely has many well-coifed lawyer-types on retainer, which is how you get the company's representatives actually filing a complaint for this sort of thing.

Fortunately, the court made it clear in its ruling that it wasn't buying it.
We're puzzled that the dairy company should have been worried by Hugunin's use of the same trademark," U.S. Circuit Judge Richard Posner said, writing for the Seventh Circuit's three-judge panel. While Land O'Lakes advertises its dairy products in fishing magazines, and even sponsors a [fishing] competition, there is no chance its products could be confused with Hugunin's fishing tackle, the panel found.

It would be strange indeed for a dairy company to manufacture a product so remote from milk, butter, and cream, and there is no sign that the dairy company intends to take the plunge. The company sponsors the angling tournament and advertises in fishing magazines because fishermen, like the rest of us, are consumers of dairy products.
Land O' Lakes had argued in its complaint that the market similarity and/or potential customer confusion here would stem from the fact that the dairy company sponsors fishing events and advertises in fishing magazines. It's a strange argument to make, as one might imagine it being a hard sell for Buick to try to control the brand names of golf equipment manufacturers just because they sponsor a PGA event. Advertising into a market doesn't make you a part of that market.

As a result, the court tossed the suit, regardless of how much Land O' Lakes chose to cry over spilled milk.

Filed Under: butter, fishing, james hugunin, land o'lakes, trademark
Companies: land o'lakes


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  • icon
    G Thompson (profile), 23 Mar 2016 @ 1:01am

    So it seems that the dairy companies claims were in fact
    Moooooooooooooot!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Mar 2016 @ 3:06am

    "Here's a fun thought experiment: precisely how many times would the average person have to hit themselves in the head with a hammer before they found themselves standing before a Land O Lakes spinner bait lure trying to decide if it was actually a stick of butter?"


    I haven't the foggiest idea. But I bet it would be zero times to make you wonder if they are maybe the same company.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Dan (profile), 23 Mar 2016 @ 7:10am

      Re:

      If the dairy has no history of making outdoor or sporting goods (which is the case), the odds are pretty slim that a prospective customer would believe that the lure was made by the dairy. Granted, those odds are higher than the odds that the prospective customer would think the lure was a stick of butter, but...

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 23 Mar 2016 @ 5:25am

    Expect this one to be appealed. There's definitely product dilution here and I'm shocked that the courts ruled as it did. The court was wrong. There's too much similarity between the two company names. It's like two companies, one named Coca Cola that makes beverages and another called Coca' Cola, that makes fishing poles. There is definitely going to be confusion and brand name dilution. I don't expect this decision to survive an appeal.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      Dan (profile), 23 Mar 2016 @ 5:31am

      Re:

      This was the decision on appeal, which seems like an odd fact for Timothy to have failed to mention. The dairy can certainly ask the Supreme Court to hear the case, but the odds aren't very high that they will.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Anonymous Coward, 23 Mar 2016 @ 9:16am

        Re: Re:

        What seems odd to me here, is that there is a 0% chance of product confusion from the Dairy conglomerate's side -- they make milk products.

        However, the tackle company has a Dairy company using its trade name *in fishing competitions and magazines* -- it seems to me that if anyone has a right to complain, it's Land O Lakes, NOT Land O'Lakes. The dairy company is using its name in the other vendor's market, and there's an ever so remote chance that THIS might cause product confusion ("I went to buy a spinner, and they sent me a crate of butter!"). You might even call this bait and switch.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      David (profile), 23 Mar 2016 @ 6:09am

      Re:

      I don't expect it to survive an appeal since I don't think it will go that far. The dairy company had no case to begin with. As long as the fishing company's logo doesn't look like the dairy company's, there should be no confusion.

      The same goes for your Coke example. As long ans the fishing company doesn't use a red and white script logo or try to sell their product in funny looking bottles, there should be no confusion.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Mar 2016 @ 6:52am

      Re:

      I don't expect this decision to survive an appeal.
      Usually safe to bet on cert. den.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Ross, 23 Mar 2016 @ 6:12am

    What if the butter company did start making fishing gear?

    What would happen then?

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      John Fenderson (profile), 23 Mar 2016 @ 6:42am

      Re: What if the butter company did start making fishing gear?

      They would not be able to use the Land O Lakes trademark without licensing it, as it is already being used by a different company in that market segment.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    David (profile), 23 Mar 2016 @ 6:27am

    I should also point out that the name "land o'lakes" existed long before the dairy company. A quick search of the web shows hundreds of hits not related to the dairy company. Will the dairy company go after the Florida city next? How about the reality company or the high school?

    Coca-cola is a made up name created by the company for one of its products. There is no prior history for the word. Coke has a better case than the Land o'Lakes dairy company but I think they would still loose. As long as there is no direct competition and no attempt to imply a relationship, there should be no confusion.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Steerpike (profile), 23 Mar 2016 @ 8:19am

    The trademark suit is far-fetched, no doubt. This quote from the article misses the mark, though:

    "Here's a fun thought experiment: precisely how many times would the average person have to hit themselves in the head with a hammer before they found themselves standing before a Land O Lakes spinner bait lure trying to decide if it was actually a stick of butter?"

    They wouldn't have to think the lure was butter, they'd just have to be confused about whether the dairy products and the fishing tackle have the same source of origin (i.e. ultimately stem from the same company). That's also a stretch, and I doubt there are many dairy companies that dabble in fishing tackle or vice-versa. But it's the source of the products, not confusion about the identity of the products themselves, that is the issue. The court was right in its assessment of this.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Anonymous Anonymous Coward, 23 Mar 2016 @ 8:39am

    Where the confusion begins

    What do you mean you can't milk fish????

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Pixelation, 23 Mar 2016 @ 8:44am

    I think Land O' Lakes is on a fishing expedition.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    The Wanderer (profile), 23 Mar 2016 @ 9:47am

    On the one hand, I recognize the importance of the per-market limitation on trademarks, and under that standard this dismissal appears to be correctly decided. I recognize also that in terms of avoiding undesirable results in future cases, this is almost certainly the right thing to do.

    However, speaking as a consumer who does not live in (or anywhere near) that region of the world: if I ran across "Land O Lakes"-branded fishing gear, my first reaction would be "Are they the same people who make the butter?" or "What is a butter brand doing on fishing gear??". (Although I am aware of the presence of the apostrophe in "Land O' Lakes", I doubt that I would have considered its absence significant in this instance, prior to reading this article.)

    As such, there does seem to be some chance of consumer confusion - not between products, but in terms of implied association and thus potential endorsement.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Anonymous Coward, 23 Mar 2016 @ 11:53am

      Re:

      I'm with you. I can't name any other trademark that is so similar across 2 companies, not that there aren't any. I know that trademarks are limited to product markets, but frankly I thought that was in theory only. As another commentor said, I doubt I could use Coca Cola in any other market and get away with it.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • icon
        John Fenderson (profile), 23 Mar 2016 @ 2:16pm

        Re: Re:

        "I can't name any other trademark that is so similar across 2 companies"

        Hallmark the greeting card company and Haulmark the trailer manufacturing company?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    blogagog (profile), 23 Mar 2016 @ 11:40am

    I'm going to start a new website that will just have photos of dropped mp3 players and phones that are covered in mud. I'm going to call it 'TechDirty'.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Whoever, 23 Mar 2016 @ 12:17pm

    The lawyers' view...

    Doesn't matter, got paid!

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    Hugo S Cunningham (profile), 24 Mar 2016 @ 7:50am

    David--
    I sympathize with your line of argument, but are you sure other businesses and government entities predate the dairy cooperative founded in 1921 (Wikipedia)? It looks like the cooperative chose the "o" spelling because they knew "of" would put it in the public domain.

    The towns in Wisconsin and Florida were named around 1950, by which time the cooperative's brand had saturated the country. Perhaps, however, the cooperative waived some rights by failing to sue the Wisconsin (and Florida) towns, at least for businesses operating near those towns.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


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