from the again-proving-anything-can-be-trademarked dept
A nearly literal war of words has erupted online, prompted by a trademark dispute. The words in question? "Would you rather."
These three words, which have prompted wonderful (and wonderfully disturbing) discussions all over the internet (and IRL, as far as I've heard) apparently "belong" to Spin Master, a toy company whose products involve board games and apps. The company on the receiving end of legal threats for daring to use "would you rather" commercially is One Mighty Roar, whose "You Rather" apps have caught the attention of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP, the legal team representing Spin Master.
One Mighty Roar's apps have attracted millions of players over the last four years, but only in the past few weeks has it managed to trigger any sort of legal action.
Earlier this month we were happily debating merits of teleportation when we received an email from Apple. It said that Spin Master, a company with a board game based on “would you rather” questions, had filed a complaint with Apple saying our You Rather apps infringed their “WOULD YOU RATHER..?” trademark. Soon after, we received a matching letter from Google. It was a true Christmas miracle.Spin Master's claim to the words "would you rather" traces back (rather circuitously) to 1997, but the registered trademark being leveraged here was filed in 2008 and granted in October of this year. The trademark covers board games and claims first use in 2004. Additional trademark owned by Spin Master also cover such areas as printed matter (mainly books and comic strips) and more pertinently, "computer and television DVD games."
Now, as One Mighty Roar's blog post points out, Spin Master hasn't gone so far as to claim it invented the "would you rather" game, but that still hasn't stopped it from making several hefty demands.
- Stop using “You Rather” and any other phrases that are similar to “Would you rather”. This includes one (yes, really) or more of the words “Would”, “You”, or “Rather”.These demands are rather extreme, especially for a company that no one thinks of when the words "would you rather" are spoken. One Might Roar clearly points this out in its filing, showing that if anything, "would you rather" is a generic term that is used to describe either/or queries, usually of the subjectively-lesser-of-two-evils variety.
- Hand over our yourather.com domain immediately
- Tell them how much money You Rather has made (presumably to ask for that too)
- Pay for their lawyers
- Attend a free no-obligation vacation for a hot new timeshare in Wyoming
At this point legally we should clarify that the last item is a joke, although at a certain level we wish they’d just gone the full gambit. Nowadays folks lack ambition, and we’re glad to see we’re not the only ones with big dreams.
Oddly enough, Spin Master's lawyers went out of their way to suggest several ungainly replacement titles for One Might Roar's apps, including such monstrosities as "this or that" (not really even the same thing) or "do you wanna" (which is at least adjacent to the ballpark, but still not really in it). This bit of "helpfulness" prompted the One Might Roar team to begin a search for a replacement URL equally as awkward.
There’s something wrong if a game of “Would you rather?” questions can’t use any of the words “Would”, “You”, or “Rather” to identify itself. Spin Master enforcing the trademark this way makes people afraid to call a popular game (which they didn’t invent) what it is. Worse still, their demands show similar issue with “Would you choose”, “Would you prefer” and other “Would you” alternatives out there. We’re lucky choosetheoptionpleasingtoonessensibilities.com is available… for now.One Might Roar isn't just going to sit there and get steamrolled by Spin Master. It has responded by asking for declaratory judgement, pointing out that "would you rather" is all over the web, but none of it (other than Spin Master's site) makes any reference to the presumably underperforming board game.
One Might Roar clearly has a point, not that logic and common sense have much to do with trademark enforcement. This legal filing gives Spin Master the appearance of a company willing to profit off the success of others while simultaneously ensuring the burial of a rival. Not that One Might Roar is a true rival. At this point, Spin Master hasn't crafted an app version of its board game, so the threat it faces hardly even clears the "existential" bar.
But we're once again back to One Mighty Roar being at the mercy of the court at this point. It should be pointed out that Spin Master (represented by Pillsbury Winthrop et al) managed to nail down an $8.6 million settlement from Zobmondo Entertainment LLC back in 2012 over its use of the phrase "would you rather." That court battle dragged on for over six years, with the final decision finding in favor of Spin Master following a reversal that kicked it back to Ninth Circuit court. The key here, though, is the fact that Zobmondo was making its own board game, in direct competition with Spin Master's. Unfortunately, the decision that was reversed was one that stated the words "would you rather" were descriptive and "lacked secondary meaning." The Ninth Circuit (and its California jury) found otherwise on appeal, declaring the phrase to be protectable.
This puts One Might Roar's petition for declaratory judgement on unsure footing. Part of what it's asking for is to find the trademarked term merely descriptive and undeserving of trademark protection. The Ninth Circuit court has already made its declaration on the matter. This battle will take place in an entirely different jurisdiction (Massachusetts) but Spin Master's previous win can't be entirely discounted.
Based on what can be observed on the net, "would you rather" is for all intents and purposes generic. Spin Master's site is the only place (outside of board game databases) where one will find this phrase being used commercially. Otherwise, it's fair game for subreddits, standalone sites and any descriptions of the game describe the premise only, making no reference to Spin Master's trademarked product.
In order to keep their registrations from lapsing, trademark owners do have to make efforts to protect their brands, but Spin Master's attempt to drain these developers has very little to do with protecting its branded product. The You Rather? app bears no resemblance to the board game other than the use of the words "would you rather," words that can only very imaginatively be thought of as holding any sort of commercial viability. Giving Spin Master a win in this case will do nothing to discourage trademark trolling and frivolous filings.