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Bill Destler Headshot

The 'Superb Owl' Party and Other Nonsense

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A few years back, a restaurant owner in Baltimore, Maryland was taken to court by the Sony Corporation because her restaurant was named "Sony's Restaurant." Sony Corporation's legal action was intended to force the restaurant owner to change the name of the restaurant to something other than "Sony's." The corporation argued that they had invested substantial resources in establishing and trademarking their brand name and that to allow other businesses to use its name would dilute its position in the marketplace. The restaurant owner, of course, had nothing like the legal and financial resources of a huge multinational corporation, so even though the restaurant owner's name was Sony Florendo, the big corporation prevailed in the end and Sony's Restaurant is no more.

I was reminded of this curious incident recently when the Student Government of Rochester Institute of Technology, where I work, was told by representatives of the National Football League that they could not hold a "Super Bowl Party" in which students would be invited to the campus field house to watch the game on large projection screens while being treated to pizza and popcorn. The reason for this objection to a seemingly innocuous student event was that the term "Super Bowl" was trademarked and that use of the term for any organized activity had to be approved by the National Football League.

Now RIT students are nothing if not creative, so they held a "Superb Owl" party instead. They designed clever flyers featuring what looked to me to be really superb owls and a couple thousand students came to the field house and had a fine time together.

In both cases, of course, those intimidated by these large corporate entities represented no real threat to the corporations. Sony Corporation is not, too my knowledge, in the restaurant business, and a student-organized game watching event could only serve to increase interest in the Super Bowl on campus. In fact, the name "Superb Owl Party" probably confused a few students and may have actually reduced the number of viewers watching the game on campus, which seems to me to be contrary to the interests of the NFL and its commercial sponsors.

And in both cases, large corporations used their legal offices against those without comparable resources to impose unreasonable outcomes that most people would think nonsensical. Now I understand that courts and lawyers are always looking for business, but there ought to be a "contempt of the legal process" law that would establish a special court that would allow victims to have these kind of intimidation efforts served "cease and desist" orders without the need to spend their limited resources on legal counsel. Individuals like Sony Florendo should not be faced with the choice of a legal fight against a large corporation that would inevitably lead to personal bankruptcy or being forced to take her own name off her business. Students at our universities should not be threatened with legal action just because they want to watch the Super Bowl together and call the event what it is.

Alternatively, someone, somewhere in our legal system should act in the role of a citizen's legal ombudsperson and have the authority to say at the point legal action is threatened, "This action reflects contempt for the legal system and an individual's (or a group's) resources should not be consumed in defending such nonsense."

I would encourage my friends in the legal profession to consider other possible remedies for such abuses. Such frivolous and nonsensical uses of legal intimidation may keep lawyers employed, but they don't serve the cause of justice.