Protecting trademarks: think before you leap
The trademark has become more valuable than we used to think. But protecting it may not be merely - or even - a legal issue.
It's all very well to protect your trademarks strenuously - in fact, there isn't much option if you want to be sure about keeping them. But how you do it - particularly on the internet - makes all the difference. Some recent work done by Tracy Suter, assistant professor of marketing at Oklahoma State University, and Steve Kopp, a researcher and associate professor of marketing at the Sam M Walton College of Business at the University of Arkansas, draws attention to the danger of alienating your most loyal customers. According to Kopp, "If a company does not actively protect its trademark, it risks losing it. But there are a lot of ways to go about it. A company that goes straight to the legal cease-and-desist option risks losing their best customers."
Enthusiastic fans Kopp points out that the law can't always keep pace with developing technologies, and that simply resorting to it can actually damage the company's reputation, particularly if a "fan" site is involved. These are usually started by people who are enthusiastic about a product and, when threatened with trademark-protecting legal action, the operators can turn nasty, changing the site into a hostile "hate" site.
Other options According to Kopp, some alternative options could be to inform the operator of the appropriate uses of trademarks, to provide additional information to ensure that the site is accurate, or even to provide server space to host the site. Another option that has been used in the past is to buy the site. Of course, if this becomes prevalent, it could be the beginning of a whole new industry: starting hate sites in order to sell them to the victim.
Opportunities While hate sites pose obvious problems for companies, they can also provide opportunities. Kopp cites the case of Dunkin' Donuts. After a disgruntled customer created a hate web site, the company contacted everyone who wrote in to the site with a complaint and offered them coupons for free doughnuts. Because the company was responsive to complaints, the web site owner agreed to sell the domain name to the company.
"This is a fundamental intellectual property issue," explained Kopp. "The trademark has become more valuable than we used to think. But protecting it may not be merely - or even - a legal issue. It all depends on the nature of the company and what they are trying to protect."