by on May 31, 2014 at 12:01 pm in Current Affairs, Economics, Law | Permalink

The latest example of Intellectual Privilege running out of control is a guy who trademarked the symbol Pi with a period afterwards. Here is Jez Kemp:

Designers are in uproar and filing counter notices after print company Zazzle upheld a man’s claim to own the pi symbol on clothing.

Paul Ingrisano, a pirate living in Brooklyn New York, filed a trademark under “Pi Productions” for a logo which consists of this freely available version of the pi symbol π from the Wikimedia website combined with a period (full stop). The conditions of the trademark specifically state that the trademark includes a period.

The trademark was granted in January 2014 and Ingrisano has recently made trademark infringement claims against a massive range of pi-related designs on print-on-demand websites including Zazzle and Cafepress.

Surprisingly, Zazzle accepted his claim and removed thousands of clothing products using this design, emailing designers that their work was infringing Pi Productions’ intellectual property – even designs not using a full stop.

At first Zazzle’s Content Review team responded to their very angry designers and store keepers with generic emails, suggesting they file counter notices if they felt aggrieved.

But now Zazzle’s latest response is that they are acting to protect Paul Ingrisano’s “intellectual property” from “confusingly similar” designs as under the Lanham Act 1946 – including designs which do not even contain the pi symbol, but just the word “pi” in their design name.

I don’t expect this particular outrage to last but as with absurd patents the real outrage is that this does accurately represent the law as it exists today.

1 Cliff May 31, 2014 at 12:11 pm

No, it does not accurately reflect the law as it exists today. I will admit that it is not completely straightforward, but aesthetic designs on clothing are distinguished from trademarks, which are source indicating and appear on labels and hang-tags. Someone using pi in a graphic design on the front of a t-shirt manufactured under a different, non-pi brand is not infringing. Consider Lacoste with it’s alligator logo. That does not prevent anyone else from using an alligator in a design on a t-shirt.

2 Adrian Ratnapala June 1, 2014 at 12:48 am

The trouble is that this intermediary Zazzle is playing it safe, it has fairly little to lose from refusing its services to a few non-infringing designers. Whereas if it provides services to them, it opens itself up to expensive lawsuits. Thus this law + any economy that requires human cooperation creates a very uneven playing field.

3 Dan Lavatan June 1, 2014 at 6:30 pm

I am not sure they are playing it safe. I had never heard of them until now, but am imposing a lifetime boycott for this, and I assume everyone else reading the blog with any sense to do the same.

4 Anonymous May 31, 2014 at 12:15 pm

Alex: What is your opinion of the radical idea of abolishing the concept of intellectual property altogether (as argued, for example, by Boldrwin and Lewin)? Would it be better or worse than the current situation? How much worse (if at all) it would be than your ideal IP system?

5 Anonymous May 31, 2014 at 12:16 pm

Apparently I managed to completely misspell the names of Boldrin and Levine and there is no edit button available…

6 prior_approval May 31, 2014 at 12:19 pm

‘Just do it’ – a trademark of the shoe company Nike – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Just_Do_It ‘The slogan was coined in 1988 at an advertising agency meeting. The founder of Wieden+Kennedy agency, Dan Wieden credits the inspiration for his “Just Do It” Nike slogan to Gary Gilmore’s last words’ – which makes one wonder how Nike would react to a Cafepress T-shirt with an image of Gary Gilmore saying that now trademarked phrase.

And here is an explanation about phrase trademarking from 2002, thus predating this web site by a couple of years – though the discussion about trademarking phrases stretches back into the 80s.

‘You don’t have to register your trademark with the federal government to receive trademark protection. Merely using a trademark in the marketplace confers rights, such as prohibiting people from copying it in order to create confusion among consumers. But registering a trademark with the federal government provides nationwide trademark protection, rather than merely local protection under state law. And it gives the owner the ability to defend a trademark in federal court.

A trademark does not mean, however, that no one else can use your word, phrase, or symbol in connection with any and all goods and services. It means only that somebody else can’t use a similar trademark with similar goods or services. The key criterion: trademark infringement occurs when someone else’s use of a trademark would likely cause confusion about the source of goods or services. Avon, for example, has trademarked “Let’s talk” for a variety of commercial uses, including door-to-door retail merchandising. But that hasn’t stopped another company from trademarking “Let’s talk” for use with voice-activated computer software, because consumers are unlikely to get confused and believe that Avon is pitching software, or that a software company is hawking lipsticks.

Congress has carved out an exception to this “confusion” rule for “famous” trademarks. The owner of a famous trademark can stop other people from using that mark even if there’s not likely to be any consumer confusion, if the other person’s use would “dilute” the famous mark. For example, “Kodak” is likely to be considered a famous trademark as applied to cameras and film. If Explainer were to start selling “Kodak shoes,” consumers probably wouldn’t get confused into believing that Kodak was extending its brand into the footwear market. On the other hand, if many companies started advertising unrelated products as “Kodak,” Kodak’s camera and film trademark would likely decrease in value. So Congress has banned that practice.’ http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/explainer/2002/02/can_you_trademark_the_phrase_lets_roll.html

What is at least vaguely interesting about this is what a soft touch Zazzle is – their lawyers’ billings are likely to benefit from this, even if Zazzle itself doesn’t.

7 Genor8tor May 31, 2014 at 12:50 pm

I never understood how someone could get “PINK” across the backside trademarked. Now it seems Victoria’s Secret owns that.

8 Careless May 31, 2014 at 1:18 pm

The real question is how they got females to pay to parade around like monkeys in estrus.

9 Ray Lopez May 31, 2014 at 1:56 pm

@Genor8tor – how did Corning Glass trademark the color “pink” for fibreglass insulation? It’s outrageous! Soon the entire spectrum of the rainbow will be off-limits??? Just kidding. Truth is, if you have enough money, the law will protect you. That’s the way it’s been since time immemorial, the rich staying rich, with AlexT playing the role of the shocked ingenue. You see, lawyers are smarter than most folk: they understand to add value there has to be incentive, so they produce barriers to entry for them and their clients so they get richer. By contrast, farmers of commodities, like the kind that grow the generic fruits and veggies and rice you find here in southeast Asia, get shafted, and rightfully so. Do you, reader, what to be a commodity wheat farmer? And be poor? No? Well, think of the bright side: you’ll have some rock star sing about you in a “Farm Aid” music festival, and deep in his heart AlexT will lionize you. The kindness of strangers…

10 Dan Weber June 2, 2014 at 11:37 am

To get something like protection for pink fiberglass, you have to, among other things:

1. show that pink is non-functional

2. show the market *already* associates pink with your brand.

11 athEIst May 31, 2014 at 3:50 pm

Is he even Greek?

12 Enrique May 31, 2014 at 4:07 pm

It’s worth noting that Alex post also poses a difficult conundrum as to who is worst douche in this whole debacle? The douche who trademarked the Pi symbol, the bureaucrat at the trademark office that approved douche #1’s trademark application, or the folks at Zazzle?

13 chuck martel May 31, 2014 at 4:55 pm

Pi is not only a symbol, it’s a letter in the Greek alphabet. The next step is for me to demand trade protection for the letter “c”, which I’ve been using as a symbol of myself for some years. Please don’t hit the “c” on your keyboard unless you’re willing to send me a check.

14 dan1111 May 31, 2014 at 5:06 pm

That’s ridi ulous.

15 Kevin Postlewaite June 1, 2014 at 8:11 pm

Holy rap!

16 Adrian Ratnapala June 1, 2014 at 12:44 am

Letters are symbols.

17 Adrian Ratnapala June 1, 2014 at 12:44 am

Doh. I wish there were a delete button on this site.

18 Ray Lopez June 1, 2014 at 1:14 am

There was a prisoner in the USA who years ago tried to trademark his name, and then wanted to sue everybody who ever wrote it down on paper. Frivolous lawsuit but it made the papers.

19 TallDave May 31, 2014 at 11:32 pm

Unfortunately, he neglected to patent the number 0 so half his data now belongs to me.

20 Adrian Ratnapala June 1, 2014 at 12:43 am

Here’s the real problem:

Designers are in uproar and filing counter notices after print company Zazzle upheld a man’s claim to own the pi symbol on clothing.

The law turns private-sector service providers into de-facto regulators. But they are regulators who can’t afford to actually provide due process or even implement the law correctly.

And for some reason, the problem is particularly severe for companies with names ending with a double-constonant followed by “-le”. Google, Apple and now Zazzle.

21 Dan Lavatan June 1, 2014 at 6:29 pm

Ingrisano is infringing on a picture of an apple pie my grandmother trademarked in the 1950s. I intend to file suit Monday.

22 Dan Weber June 1, 2014 at 8:03 pm

Unlike other forms of IP, trade mark is for protection of consumers, not creators. If I call my store “Bloomingdale’s” customers will be confused.

I don’t think this is reducing customer confusion.

23 JJ June 19, 2014 at 7:37 pm


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