About a month ago, Mark Bittman – a cookbook author and former New York Times columnist – announced the launch of his new online food publication called SALTY. His publication would cover the world of food with an eye for politics and inequality, in addition to recipes and personal essays. Unfortunately for Mr. Bittman, another publication was already using the SALTY name and took issue with Mr. Bittman’s choice of name.
The focus of the other SALTY publication was a sex, dating, and relationships newsletter for women, transgender, and non-binary people. The founder said SALTY was chosen because “it’s visceral. Sex is salty, sweat is salty, sweat is salty, tears are salty.” This publication has not been around for a long time having been launched in March 2018.
When the founder learned of Mr. Bittman’s publication she reportedly was “really angry.” This reaction is not uncommon in trademark disputes. Unlike copyrights and patents, trademarks are supposed to embody all the good things about a good or service and help tell the story. That’s why from the beginning founders in particular are closely tied to their trademarks.
When a trademark dispute rears its ugly head, it can be difficult for trademark owners to look past the emotion and make decisions based on the facts of the case. But getting to the facts is key to making smart decisions. With every trademark dispute, the question must be asked “Is this other use harming me” or “could this use realistically harm me in the future”?
The word “salty” has multiple meanings and conveys different impressions depending on the context of the use. This means that – assuming no famous mark for dilution purposes exists – identical marks may be capable of peacefully co-existing in the marketplace. Not all publications are same for likelihood of confusion purposes.
This was the case with the SALTY publications. First, the two marks – while visually and phonetically identical – conveyed very different meanings because they were exploiting different meanings of the “salty” term. Second, their target audiences are very different because the subject matters of the publications are very different.
It is unlikely that any consumer would mistakenly believe that Mr. Bittman’s publication is associated with the first SALTY publication such that Mr. Bittman will unjustly benefit from more visitors, subscribers, or readers. Because the subject matters are so different, there is no way the first SALTY publication will lose readers or visitors because of Mr. Bittman’s publication. Mr. Bittman was a former New York Times columnist, so the likelihood that his publication would be so poor that it would negatively reflect on the first SALTY publication is highly unlikely. Finally, the publications both are new, so there is no potential loss of control of a reputation because Mr. Bittman’s publication is so large.
By getting through the emotion and looking at the facts, this isn’t a case that the first SALTY publication should spend the time pursuing. And hopefully, first SALTY does not pursue it because Mr. Bittman voluntarily rebranded his publication to MEDIUM X BITTMAN. However, the name change wasn’t enough, first SALTY is looking for a payday.