Thursday, October 18, 2007

Good Thing His Name Isn't McDonald

Good Thing His Name Isn't McDonald
Erik Deckers
Laughing Stalk Syndicate
Copyright 2007

Not many people know it, but there are two Erik Deckers in the world. The other Erik Deckers is a real estate agent in Belgium, while I, well, live here. At least that guy gets to live in a foreign country.

Several years ago, my Belgian counterpart and I exchanged a few emails, and we promised not to step on each other's career toes. I wouldn't sell real estate, and he wouldn't write humor columns.

Seems easy enough. Neither of us have ever had any problems with being confused for the other. No one writes angry letters to him about boob jokes, and no one has ever asked me about an apartment in Brussels. Neither of us has ever been confused for the other.

If people are smart enough not to confuse two people with identical names, they're smart enough not to confuse businesses with somewhat similar names. Right?

Not if you're a lawyer.

Case in point: Restaurateur Ty Morton recently opened a new eatery in downtown Muncie, Indiana, my hometown. The name of the place? Morton's Pub and Grub.

Seems obvious enough. You open a restaurant, you put your name on it.

But Morton's Steakhouse is worried people might get confused between their place and Ty's. So they sent a nasty letter telling Ty to change the name of his restaurant. They said it infringes on their trademark, and he must change it or face legal action.

In other words, Morton can't use his own name on his own restaurant. Why? Is the steakhouse worried that someone will confuse a 40-seat restaurant that serves Irish food and pub fare with a place that serves expensive steaks? Or worse, are they worried someone is going to come into their steakhouse and -- how gauche! -- ask for Shepherd's Pie and hot wings?

I could see the problem if Ty Morton tried opening a steakhouse. But it's just a small restaurant, not a steak empire.

A few years ago, Bill Wyman, an American reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, faced a similar problem. The former bassist for the Rolling Stones, Bill Wyman, had his lawyers send a warning letter to American Bill, saying he couldn't use the Bill Wyman name if it caused confusion for English Bill's fans.

(It didn't. The fans are smarter than the lawyers.)

The funny part was English Bill had changed his name from Bill Perks three years AFTER American Bill was born. So, I think American Bill had the better claim to the name, and should have counter-sued English Bill for the very same reason.

Which makes me wonder: could Ty Morton's dad have sued Arnie Morton, founder of Morton's Steakhouse, for using his name? Maybe Ty's dad didn't want his name associated with a steakhouse started by a guy who used to run Playboy Clubs in the 1970s.

And why didn't Morton Salt, which was founded in 1848, sue the steakhouse for trademark infringement in 1978, when the first steakhouse opened in Chicago? Weren't they worried someone might confuse a round box of salt for a delicious slab of beef? Wouldn't some people mistakenly put granulated beef on their french fries, cucumbers, or oven-baked chicken?

No, of course not. That would be silly. So will someone please tell the steakhouse shysters to unclench a bit? No one is going to confuse a small Irish pub in downtown Muncie with an upscale steakhouse found in 69 cities around the world. Just like they won't confuse the steakhouse with any other kind of Morton's establishment around the world. But they decided only to pick on Ty.

They completely missed Morton's BMW in Fredericksburg, Virginia, Morton's Orchards in Palisade, California, and Morton's Seafood in Madisonville, Louisiana.What about Morton's Bistro Northwest in Salem, Oregon, or Morton's Supermarket in Dublin, Ireland? Those places serve food, why don't you pick on them?

What's wrong, did Morton's Warm Springs Resort in Glen Ellen, California, Morton's Horticultural Products in McMinnville, Tennessee, and Morton's Christmas Fundraising Wreaths escape your beady gaze?

And let's not forget Morton's Toe, a condition where the second toe is longer than the big toe. I'm sure there's someone you could sue for that.

This problem has given Morton's Steakhouse some bad PR (which didn't make the News section of their website). While they're getting their name in the media, they've become a corporate bully who gets its kicks by picking on the little guy. Even if they win, they lose. And if they let Ty keep his name, they lose.

In other words, they're between a rock and a hard place. They're faced with two equally unpleasant options, both of which lead to the same bad ending. That's what the English call Morton's Fork.

And guess who's going to get jabbed with it in the end.

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