Most trademark owners are mindful of the need to protect their marks and some are more aggressive than others pursuing perceived infringements by way of a cease and desist letter or a lawsuit. Although some well-known trademark owners have acquired a reputation as “trademark bullies” due to their quick resort to litigation in even marginal cases, occasionally even a well-intentioned trademark owner will overreact and send a cease and desist letter that, in hindsight, should not have been sent.
In the past, such a lapse in judgment may have had little or no negative impact on the trademark owner. Even if its enforcement efforts were ignored, at least the trademark owner had further evidence of its diligence in protecting its trademark rights. Nowadays, in the social media age, each cease and desist letter you send has the potential to result in a public relations nightmare. Recently, the U.S. Olympic Committee found this out the hard way. The USOC fired off a cease and desist letter when a social networking site for knitters known as “Ravelry” decided to conduct a “Ravelympics” in which its members would participate in various knitting competitions. By law, the USOC has exclusive control over use of the term “Olympics” that extends well beyond the ordinary trademark owner’s right to preclude confusing commercial uses of similar marks. Rather than meekly submitting to the USOC’s demand that the Ravelympics be renamed, many of Ravelry’s 2 million members took to their computers and deluged the USOC by email, with messages on the USOC Facebook page, and with tweets on Twitter. The negative publicity for the USOC was magnified when the news media picked up on pushback from Ravelry members and reported it. The USOC quickly backed down and apologized but post-apology comments left by Ravelry members on the USOC Facebook page suggest that at least some of them are boycotting television coverage of the Summer Olympics in London.
The lesson to be learned from the USOC’s Ravelry snafu is that it is more important than ever to think about all of the potential reactions to a cease and desist before sending one, especially for those trademark owners already making heavy use of social media as a regular part of their marketing efforts. An ill-advised cease and desist letter can end up doing far more harm to the trademark owner’s goodwill and reputation than the perceived infringement that prompted the letter likely ever would.