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Seattle's Mars Hill Church in Second Trademark Scrape

Seattle’s Mars Hill church, just a few months removed from a trademark issue involving a Seattle graduate school of the same name, has gotten into another trademark scrape, a Christian magazine reported last week.

The Seattle church alleged in a cease-and-desist letter that a Sacramento, Calif.-based church had infringed its name and logo.

The California pastor who received the letter said his church designed its logo in 2007, and he noticed the Seattle-based church’s name and logo when he visited Seattle in 2009. At the time, he thought the Seattle church had copied his church’s design. Not so — Mars Hill (Seattle) reportedly adopted its logo in 1996.

In the end, the California church is going to change its logo but not its name, as the Seattle church initially demanded.

Earlier this year, the Christian Mars Hill Graduate School — located only blocks from one of the church’s sites — said it would change its name because of the confusion it had experienced. However, there’s no indication the church encouraged the school to do so. (STL post here.)

The lesson here for trademark owners is the same one the church-graduate school issue raised. If you’re the later-adopter, you need to be sure you’re not infringing the senior user’s rights (i.e., causing a likelihood of consumer confusion with the earlier-adopter). If you are, you’re the one that’s probably got to change to resolve the infringement.

As is now clear, Mars Hill is a common trademark for services associated with Christianity (be it a church, graduate school, or other provider). As such, the ability of one user to complain about other users that similarly have adopted the popular mark, is limited. But that’s not to mean later-adopters can appropriate the mark in a way that would lead consumers to believe there’s a connection between the later-adopter and the earlier user.

It’s nice the churches have worked out their differences. It’s just too bad the junior user didn’t research the landscape of existing use of its mark before it began using it. Changing a trademark — even if it’s just a logo — isn’t fun.

A potential second lesson is the regret Mars Hill (Seattle) has expressed over not addressing its concerns with the Sacramento church by telephone before sending its cease-and-desist letter.

“In hindsight, we realize now that the way we went about raising our concerns, while acceptable in the business world, is not the way we should deal with fellow Christians,” Mars Hill (Seattle) said in a blog post. “We made a mistake in not calling these churches prior to sending the letter. We should have picked up the phone before sending any other communication.”

I think that’s good advice regardless of what business you’re in.

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Reader Comments (1)

This is also another lesson for taking care when selecting a mark. Allusions to seminal events are likely to be commonly used as marks. So no practicing Christian should be surprised that fellow Christians would select a mark referring to Mars Hill, a famous sermon preached by the Apostle Paul in Athens. Acts 17:16-34.

A wag may say that Mars Hill Church's demand letter was ungodly and inconsistent with Paul's injunction against lawsuits among believers. 1 Corinthians 6:1-11. Such a demand letter would be a bit of a surprise, coming from a church purporting to honor the Apostle Paul. Considering the church's walk-back, I suspect it belatedly realized that.
October 31, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterRobert Pierce

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