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Pork Board Thwacks Mom to Safeguard their Money-Laundering Scheme

So, the blogosphere was full up last week with postings about Jennifer Laycock, the well-liked search marketer who put up a website to support a breastfeeding nonprofit group. I heard her speak on Linkbaiting last year at SES San Jose, and she was fantastic! I’d even spammed some of our staff at my company with a note mentioning that session.

Well, one of her fundraising methods is to sell t-shirts with humorous phrases on them referring to milk and breastfeeding, and the one bearing the slogan, “The Other White Milk” attracted the ire of the National Pork Board who own the trademark “The Other White Meat”. Laycock blogged about the National Pork Board‘s demands, and many other bloggers jumped to her defense in a small blogstorm.

Most folx mentioning this failed to mention what use the National Pork Board has put “The Other White Meat” slogan to: avoiding controls on how they spend money. Read on and I’ll elaborate.

I got interested in what the National Pork Board was using “The Other White Meat” slogan, and found that they only bought the asset during the last year, and some of the circumstances were already perhaps ethically dubious by some people’s perspective.

According an article by Parke Wilde, the National Pork Board bought the slogan in order to circumvent federal restrictions on how the National Pork Board may use money. In 2006, the National Pork Board bought the brand from the National Pork Producers Council (NPPC). Apparently the Pork Board will be making payments for the slogan for quite a number of years, and Parke slams this as deal only benefitting insiders.

According to Parke, the National Pork Board is a government agency which essentially taxes pork farmers, even though hog farmers voted to end these types of assessments. According to the hog farmers, the Secretary of Agriculture made some sort of backroom deal with the National Pork Producer’s Council to continue the assessments despite lack of support from the small farmers. According to the hog farmers, the NPPC is primarily an ally or PAC for big agribusiness corporations.

So, let’s parse this out. The National Pork Board bought a slogan from an agribusiness PAC at a huge sum that was likely not independently appraised. Moneys from pork assessments placed on farmers who do not feel represented by the process are now funnelling to the NPPC, who are a PAC lobbying for the interests of large agribusiness concerns that likely don’t represent the interests of all the small hog farmers whose taxes are funnelled their way.

If you read the above links, you begin to suspect that perhaps the National Pork Board is composed of people who may not be representing the public good. The criticism is all too believable for any of us who’ve grown to a cynical view of government that is swayed by the fat-cat lobbyists of rich PACs.

So, Jennifer accidentally stepped in the wrong end of a swine pen.

The National Pork Board bought this asset last year at a humongous price, and now they must continue the pretense of its worth by “safeguarding” the trademark as though it was “Coca-cola”. I think we should call for an independent audit of what the mark’s actual worth may be, and then force the National Pork Board to alter it’s amount of payments to NPPC to reflect the independently assessed value. As Parke skillfully suggested, there likely isn’t all that much competition for that particular mark, meaning the dollar amount in an open market would’ve likely been far lower.

So, what should be done now? Jennifer reports they’re working with her on some solution, since this was a little embarrassing to the National Pork Board. Here’s my suggestions:

1st, Jennifer’s slogan was a satire. As such, I believe it’s protected speach and a fair use. It’s in no way going to confuse consumers, so they should just drop it. If they take it to court with her, they risk losing some level of control of their mark.

2nd, I’m sick of major corporations handling this sort of thing by using a big legal hammer in this way. I remember when Disney threatened children’s daycare centers in Florida because they’d painted Mickey and Goofey pictures on their walls. In a publicity coup, Universal Studios turned around and said they were welcome to paint Bugs Bunny and friends on the walls, and they’d even provide the paint! I also recall when United Media went after fan groups that used their Snoopy and Peanuts characters on newsletters and such. Lawyers did the same thing to fan groups for the Three Stooges. Don’t these corporations see that they’re harming themselves when they do that? It’s all out of proportion to the actual risk.

Yes, you can’t let everybody use your mark, or it becomes public domain and you lose control of it. But, you also can’t be slapping down your own fan base or you’re an idiot. George Lucas does this right — he lets fan groups play around with his marks and characters so long as they don’t do it for profit. That’s a beautiful way to handle it!

So, you vicious corporate lawyers, I have an alternate solution for cases like those fan groups using your marks: send the well-meaning fans a nice note, instead of a cold cease-and-desist. Tell them that in order for you to protect the good name/image/whatever, you can’t really have unlicensed people using it. Tell them that you really appreciate their love of your product, and that as long as they’re not using it for making profit, you can give them a limited license of use for some pro-forma amount, like $5. This solution satisfies all needs: protect your mark, and stop clobbering the people who made it a success in the first place.

 

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