January 7, 1997 12:00 PM PST

Hallmark in copyright squabble

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When it comes to building a brand, Hallmark Cards has the Midas touch. But when it comes to trademarks, one company says the greetings giant has sticky fingers.

Greet Street, a San Francisco company that sells hard-copy and digital greeting cards, says despite its frequent warnings, Hallmark Connections repeatedly has used Greet Street's trademark "e-greetings."

Hallmark has agreed to comply for now, but will challenge the trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The Internet's rapid growth has created a new battlefront for trademark owners, and Hallmark is the latest company accused of violation. The complaint follows a slew of lawsuits filed last year targeting Web sites that allegedly breached trademarks, including ones named after Marilyn Monroe, a New York jazz club, Esquire and the New Yorker magazines, and most recently Harrods, the giant London department store.

A fierce protector of its own name, Hallmark used the term "e-greetings" on its Web site offering free electronic greetings cards when it launched November 15. Greet Street, which bought the trademark on October 8 from Seattle-based Amy-Chao Corporation, promptly informed Hallmark of the trademark violation.

Hallmark complied--sort of. "Their Web site launched a few weeks after we acquired the trademark, and nevertheless the word 'e-greetings' was all over it," Greet Street president Tony Levitan said. "The thing I find mystifying is that a company with a creative budget of millions of dollars can't muster up the creative energy to come up with something that doesn't infringe on our trademark."

Greet Street has yet to file a lawsuit, perhaps because the two companies are both involved in a major greetings project-- America Online's electronic postcards service that will launch this month.

Hallmark has backed off on its use of the name. But not in all cases.

While Hallmark took all references to "e-greetings" off its Web site, it hasn't stopped billing its service as a site from which to send e-greetings. A search for "e-greetings" on Yahoo reveals that the Hallmark Connections listing still says: "free e-greetings from Hallmark." Hallmark also has continued to use the term to describe its digital greetings in media interviews.

But the real battle for Greet Street may be looming in Hallmark's counterattack. Hallmark says it will ask the Patent and Trademark Office to throw the trademark out. On top of that, it will ask that "e" be declared a generic term for electronic, so it can't be trademarked.

"It remains our position that Hallmark's use of the term 'e-greetings' does not infringe any rights of Greet Street. We still intend to file for cancellation of [the trademark] if you do not voluntarily abandon it," said Hallmark senior attorney David Johnson in a letter to Greet Street on December 5.

"We feel that it is manifestly unfair for one firm to monopolize a term which is the inevitable and obvious abbreviation for 'electronic greeting.'" He likened it to a generic term such as VCR.

Greet Street has no objection to Hallmark seeking the trademark review and was confident that it would win.

Some experts think Greet Street may have a good case. Stuart Smith, an intellectual property lawyer for Gordon & Glickson, said although "e" often refers to electronic, Greet Street has good reason to feel threatened by Hallmark's use of "e-greetings" in speech and otherwise.

"A trademark is only as good as the public's recognition of the brand. Once the brand becomes a generic term publicly, the trademark is lost."

 

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