This year, the U.S. has seen widespread strikes by unionized (or would-be unionized) workers of all kinds. From television and movie writers and actors to auto and health care workers, Americans are increasingly taking action to get the rights and compensation they believe they deserve.
Some workers still in the fledgling stages of unionizing have found themselves being sued for trademark infringement by their employers. That’s because they have used their employers’ trademarked branding on their signs, shirts and other strike paraphernalia. In some cases, they use it in their own name.
Three companies have sued striking workers
For example, last year, Medieval Times sued its striking employees for calling themselves “Medieval Times Performers United,” and using the entertainment company’s logo and imagery. The company claimed it caused “consumer confusion.” A judge disagreed.
Striking grocery store workers who named themselves Trader Joe’s United face a similar lawsuit for trademark infringement that hasn’t yet been resolved. The company says that by using Trader Joe’s branding on its website and merchandise, the union is causing it “significant reputational harm.”
Now Starbucks has filed a lawsuit against striking workers calling their campaign “Starbucks Workers United,” claiming trademark infringement and dilution by using its name and logo. Part of the issue for Starbucks is that striking workers have taken some political stands on social media.
Does this cause confusion for consumers?
In all three of these cases, the striking workers claim that no one could reasonably confuse the union with the company – particularly since they’re fighting their employers’ attempts to prevent them from unionizing.
Even if your company isn’t yet large enough to have employees’ attempting to unionize, it’s worth watching these cases to see how employees’ use of intellectual property without authorization (and in fact, arguably, to present their employers in a negative light are handled by the courts.
Any intellectual property dispute, whether it involves patents, trademarks or other protected imagery, product or idea, can be complex. No business should attempt to handle it alone. If you have sound legal guidance from the beginning, you can better avoid a long, expensive court battle.