Media Law Bulletin - No More 'Hon'? Hon Battle in Baltimore Over Trademarked Endearment - February 2011

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There's a war waging in Baltimore — over the use of a common endearment. What's causing all of this excitement? No, it's not "sugar pie," "pumpkin" or "baby cakes." It's "hon," short for honey. Baltimoreans are up in arms over a term some might argue is sexist, misogynistic and right out of the 1950s. But enough folks in Baltimore believe in the validity and value of the term to either support the trademark or fight over the right to use it. Call it, as many news outlets already have, the "Battle of the Hons."

This Hon Is Mine

Denise Whiting owns Café Hon, Honbar and Hontown (a gift shop) and also founded Honfest (www.honfest.net), an annual Baltimore celebration that features a cartoon-like image of a large, bespectacled, heavily lipsticked, homegrown Baltimore character with tall hair and a love of housedresses. Whiting told a Baltimore Sun reporter that she began applying for trademarks on "hon" and its variations in 1992 after opening Café Hon. (However, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website shows the first trademark for "hon" was granted in 2005.)

The public at large did not find out about the claimed ownership of "hon" until December 2010, when local news in Baltimore reported on the controversy. People were surprised that Whiting not only owns the rights to using "hon" on items such as napkins, note cards, calendars, pens, shirts, hats, underwear, ties and shorts, but that Whiting likely will seek a license from folks who want to use the word for anything commercial.

For instance, in 2005, an attorney representing Whiting wrote to the owners of a store called Thanks, Hon! telling them to "immediately cease and desist from any use of the term HON." The store has since closed.

Over the years, the mark has been used by Café Hon "to identify its goods and services and to distinguish them from those sold by others," stated the letter written to Thanks, Hon!'s owner. "Such use includes restaurant services and retail services for gifts and novelties including clothing, paper goods, note cards, greeting cards, gift bags, etc."

In Fall 2010, the Maryland Transit Administration (MTA) wanted to increase ridership, so the MTA created a campaign using beehived and bespectacled "Hon" character for a new fare card along with the phrase "Get yours, hon." The MTA, however, had to get Whiting's permission. Whiting didn't charge money but she did insist on approving each ad, poster and television commercial.

And a few years ago, when Whiting found out that someone was selling "hon" merchandise at the Baltimore-Washington International Airport, she confronted him, demanding he turn over all of the goods and pay her attorney's fees. He complied. One wonders if that same vendor moved on to selling merchandise with a "sweet cheeks" or "sugar pie" logo?

The very idea that one woman could legally own a word so deeply entrenched in Baltimore's lexicon, a term that seems to touch on the city's very blue-collar, audacious essence, did not sit well with many Baltimoreans.

Taking Back Hon

However, because Baltimoreans don't see using "sugar" as a viable alternative, the days of allowing a one-woman monopoly on "hon" may be coming to an end. One determined man is saying enough is enough. Bruce Goldfarb, the publisher of a website called "Welcome to Baltimore, Hon!", is attempting to challenge Whiting's trademark of "hon" by selling a coffee mug "emblazoned" with the word in an attempt to get Whiting to bring a lawsuit.

Please see full article below for more information.

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DISCLAIMER: Because of the generality of this update, the information provided herein may not be applicable in all situations and should not be acted upon without specific legal advice based on particular situations.

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