Domestic Diva Martha Stewart is back in the legal news, but this time it's more about sofas than stocks. Her company's quest to trademark the word "Katonah" in a home furnishings line already on sale has been met with protests from both descendants of Chief Katonah, a great Indian leader, and the community and businesses of the upscale New York hamlet named after him.
In 2005, after a 5 month stint in federal prison for lying to investigators about a stock trade, Stewart sought refuge (while completing her sentence on house arrest) in her 152-acre Katonah NY home which she had bought for $16 million five years before. In the same year, Stewart, through her company Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSLO), sought to trademark the name of the posh hamlet as her inspiration for a line of sofas, four poster beds, dining room tables, paints, and other products described on Stewart's website as "classic American style with a touch of formal refinement . . .[and] a spirit of refreshed traditionalism."
In April 2007, though, during the last phase of approval with the United States Patents & Trademarks Office, residents of the Westchester County hamlet of the same name—the one with a $916,000 average home price that prohibited Starbucks from doing business there in 1990—filed objections to the granting of the trademark. Katonah, a town of 12,400 residents about 40 miles north of New York City, was renamed in 1852 to honor the great 17th century Indian chief and leader of the Ramapough Indians in the New York/New Jersey area who sold the land to white settlers in 1680.
The first organization to object to the trademark was the Katonah Valley Improvement Society (KVIS), organized in 1887, which has started a campaign called "Nobody Owns Katonah." The group's spokesperson Lydia Landesberg has labeled the controversy a moral issue—"the right of a community to its own identity." KVIS is concerned that small local businesses could be prohibited from using their own town's name in marketing and similar activities without asking permission from MSLO. Two of those businesses are hardware stores, who have joined in the official opposition.
But aside from business interests, Stewart's request has also angered the Ramapough Lenape Indian Nation, a group of Chief Katonah's descendants. Autumn Scott, co-chair of New Jersey State Commission on Indian Affairs and member of the Deer Clan Council of the Ramapough has stated: "We trust that Martha Stewart intended no malice in seeking to have her corporation trademark the name of one of our great ancestral leaders, but for her to say she is doing so to honor him and our tribe is absurd especially when it's done solely for profit."
In defense of the trademark application, Stewart's lawyer John Cuti has called allegations of being spurred solely by profit unfair, stressing Stewart's love for her Katonah farmhouse and stable, which inspired the furniture collection in question—it even says as much in the marketing materials. Moreover, says Cuti, the trademark registration "will not stop Katonah residents—or anyone else—from using the name Katonah exactly as they always have."
So how do the objections to the trademark stack up? The potential offensive nature of using the name is a question best debated among the interested parties.
However, we're left to wonder whether the name "Katonah" will eventually call to mind only armoires and settees and not the great Indian chief. On the other hand, Stewart's furniture collection could make Katonah a household name and bring more attention to the town, and accordingly, its heritage.
But let's address the clearer, legal issue here: What would a trademark of the word "Katonah" entitle Martha Stewart to under the law?
According to the United States Code, a trademark is a word, name, symbol, device or a combination thereof used to identify and distinguish one seller or manufacturer's product from the products of another. In order for a trademark to be enforceable, a trademark application must be approved by the United States Patents & Trademarks Office.
So, if MSLO's trademark in "Katonah" were granted, does that mean no business could then legally use "Katonah" in its name? In short, only if the business were in the same business as MSLO, and MSLO complained of an infringement.
The test for trademark infringement is "likelihood of confusion," i.e., if a consumer is likely to be confused about who has made or sponsored the goods, an infringement will be found. So, in this instance, if MSLO is granted the trademark, a Katonah furniture store might not be able to use "Katonah" in its name, but a merchant who sells fruit probably would be.
Take, for example, Philadelphia cream cheese or Nantucket Nectars. Both have trademarked places in their names but that hasn't prohibited others from using Philadelphia or Nantucket in other business pursuits.
Moreover, even if there were legal hurdles for local residents and business owners using "Katonah," the Katonah Chamber of Commerce has stated that it and Stewart's company believe that "co-existence agreements" could be drawn up to avoid trademark violations, which could be another solution.
For now, though, the decision is in the hands of the Patents & Trademarks Office, and as there was recently another extension granted in the opposition process, we'll just have to get comfortable and wait for the final word.
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