While many business owners are aware that trademark infringement disputes could theoretically happen to them, most simply feel like they’ll deal with that unlikely situation when, or if, they are forced to. Unfortunately, there are serious downsides to handling trademark infringement like this, and business owners or entrepreneurs would be wise to prepare for the situation, instead of just waiting to do damage control. There are lots of people out there with an eye out for companies that they may be able to exploit, so it’s best to be prepared.
Take, for example, a recent case of alleged trademark infringement in Colorado. The Wild Animal Sanctuary, a Keenesburg, Colorado company that rescues exotic animals, filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against a Montana and Arizona-based charity with an eerily similar name and url address, the Wild Life Sanctuary Fund. The lawsuit claims that the Montana-registered charity infringed upon the intellectual property of the already established Colorado-based group, intentionally conflating them to internet viewers, and possibly syphoning off donations intended for the Wild Animal Sanctuary.
It’s worth noting that the Wild Animal Sanctuary has a number of currently functioning physical locations, with two in Colorado and one in Texas, with over 10,000 acres of land owned by the entity for rehabilitating wild animals. On the other hand, the Wild Life Sanctuary Fund just has a mission statement: “to establish a Wild Life Sanctuary in North Central Montana.” To date, the Wild Life Sanctuary Fund is purely theoretical, and couldn’t be reached for comment by the ColoradoDaily when they reported on the case.
The urls for the two companies are extremely similar: one is www.wildanimalsanctuary.org, while the Montana charity’s url is www.wildanimalsanctuaryfund.org. If you’re confused by this striking similarity, unfortunately you weren’t the only one.
Pat Craig, the founder and director of the Wild Animal Sanctuary, says that he stumbled across the suspiciously similar website in 2019, during an unrelated google search. Since then, Craig and Kent Drotar, the public relations director for the actual animal sanctuary, have reported that multiple patrons have been confused by the web addresses, saying that they donated money to the Montana charity when they meant to donate instead to the Colorado sanctuary.
After doing a little more digging, Craig says he found a network of 30+ charities, with mission statements ranging from wildlife curatorship, to curing cancer. They were all run by the same couple, Lon and Elizabeth Taylor, from an address in Arizona. While this is a long shot away from proving that the Taylors intentionally copied Craig’s intellectual property to pull donations away from his company, it’s certainly sketchy. Who knows how much money intended for Craig’s organization instead went to the Taylors?
The U.S. has an effective set of laws and procedures, that if used correctly, can protect your intellectual property against illegal use. But as commerce continues to move onto the internet, opportunities for intellectual property thieves are growing, and scammers are developing new ways to take advantage of honest business owners.
The Wild Life Sanctuary Fund charity scheme is just one way of skirting intellectual property laws for profit. Companies that sell their products through third party retailers, such as Amazon, can be held hostage in other ways too, if they don’t fully protect themselves. A company might produce a successful product that is selling well on Amazon, and decide to acquire a U.S. trademark registration for some of the classes of goods that they offer under their brand. But scammers looking to take legal advantage of holes in the legitimate company’s armor can then trademark other related classes of goods, putting themselves in a position where they can achieve legal leverage over the legitimate business.
So how can you avoid this happening to your organization?
Plan Your Trademark And Intellectual Property Strategy
As you start planning your business, think through all the classes of goods that your company may sell throughout its life cycle, and consider trademarking them under your brand. This applies especially to any company planning to engage in any kind of interstate commerce, including taking donations from outside your home state. Properly protecting your intellectual property in niches you suspect your company may move into in the future can save you headaches and legal fees down the road.
Protect You Name And Internet Domains
While the legitimate Wild Animal Sanctuary had trademarked their official name and owned their official internet domain, they didn’t have protections set up for related names and domains. While they may be able to prove that these actions infringed upon their protected intellectual property, it will take a lawsuit to do so. Lawsuits mean hefty legal fees, and carry with them the inherent possibility of losing the case, for a multitude of reasons.
To avoid this situation, you can register names and domains that are close to the ones that you plan to use to officially represent your organization. A good check to see if you might want to register a similar domain or name is to ask yourself: Would I consider it trademark infringement if I saw a competitor using this domain or name later? If the answer is yes, it can’t hurt to be safe and protect that related intellectual property.
Protect Yourself From Trademark Filing Scams
When looking for a trademark firm to file your trademark application with, make sure you do your research. There are multiple trademark firms that take advantage of unsuspecting clients, either during the filing process, or by misrepresenting themselves as an official representative of the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO), and hitting you up for things like “trademark fees” later on. If you’re going into this without legal counsel, spend some time researching the different firms you are looking at, and make sure the one you choose is the genuine article.
Better yet, hire a patent or trademark attorney to do all of these steps with you, a move that the USPTO “highly recommends”. Because the USPTO will communicate directly with your attorney during the legalistic application and filing processes, you won’t have to worry about scammers contacting you, and you can concentrate on other essential aspects of your emerging business.
However you decide to protect your intellectual property, it’s essential to think carefully about the possibility of being taken advantage of by fraudsters who may recognize your success, and decide to take you for a ride. Making an informed plan for trademark protection can save you from making difficult and potentially costly decisions, just when your organization is taking off.
There is a bright side to this story: at the time of the publication of this blog post, the confusingly similar website www.wildanimalsanctuaryfund.org appears to be inactive.
At Patents Integrated, we aren’t patent attorneys. We’re not business consultants. We’re so much more than that. We’re patent agents who pull from multiple disciplines to help innovators create successful IP strategies that will serve them for years to come. If you’re ready to turn your invention into a reality, we’re here to make it possible. Click here to get started.