Gene Weingarten: Restraint of trademark

May 15, 2011

To: Holly Lim, Chief Operating Officer, The John B. Stetson Co.

Dear Ms. Lim:

I am responding to your letter demanding a published correction to a line in one of my recent columns. The line suggested that readers who wish to feel more American could “put on a Stetson.”

To me, this seemed like an innocuous — even friendly — reference to your company’s product. Alas, you disagree. The correction you are seeking, and which I now solemnly herewith deliver under the implied threat of a trademark-infringement lawsuit, is that “Stetson” is the name of your company and not a generic term for a hat. You further demand that all future references to “Stetson” contain a little R in a circle, like this: Stetson®. Okay. Done, and done.

Stetson® hats suck.

Sure, that’s nasty and very likely unfair, but I am feeling a little prickly. We journalists receive harrumphy corporate letters like yours from time to time, and they really annoy us. For one thing, they require us to communicate with our legal departments. If there is one thing that journalists hate, it is talking to their legal departments. Newspaper lawyers are, and have always been, very cautious.


(Illustration by Eric Shansby)

Newspaper lawyer: Your story on Watergate seems to be implying President Nixon is a crook. Can you prove that?

Bob Woodward: Yes.

Newspaper lawyer: Well, has he ever robbed a convenience store and pistol-whipped the clerk?

Bob Woodward: Not to my knowledge.

Newspaper lawyer: We’d better mention that, just to be safe.

The second reason letters such as yours annoy journalists is that we do not see ourselves as being responsible for your corporate image-management. It’s just an intuitive thing. After all, we don’t tell you how to make Stetson® hats. We presume you are better than we are at turning small, cute furry animals into “felt.” So why should you tell us how to arrange our words into humor columns?

My point is that sometimes we journalists react intemperately to letters like yours.

Many years ago my friend Berkeley Breathed, the cartoonist, got a similar letter about one of his first “Bloom County” strips. In the strip, curmudgeonly and mischievous Grampa Bloom was at Burger King trying to order a Whopper “his way,” which was without a bun. When the counter clerks declined to fill this odd order, Grandpa went ballistic. To shut him up, the clerks relented and gave him his bun-less burger. In the last panel, Grandpa then orders a milkshake without a cup.

In a testy letter from its corporate headquarters, Burger King demanded that, in any future references, “Bloom County” call the company’s signature meat product a “Whopper Sandwich®.”

Breathed told me he wrote back and assured Burger King that in the future, in “Bloom County,” the Whopper would be referred to as “The Burger King Rat Meat Special.”

Me, I don’t feel snideness helps in journalist-corporate communications. So I write today mostly in a conciliatory fashion.

I would like to clear up one misconception, though: I was not, as your letter suggests, using the word Stetson® as a synonym for “hat.” I was using it as a synonym for “doofusy cowboy hat” of the sort that has made the Stetson® company famous, and that can in an instant, on any city street, transform any ordinary man into a pretentious, truly comical-looking weenis®. I made up that word just now, and therefore own it, and therefore am requiring an ® sign whenever it is used.

I know you will understand.

E-mail Gene at weingarten@washpost.com.

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