Saving 'Spam:' Hormel's Fight to Protect Its Famous Product's Name

On Clark Street in Chicago there's a nondescript restaurant called the Aloha Grill that is nonetheless distinguished by what it serves: Spam.

They put it in something that resembles sushi. They offer it as a side to eggs. They drop it into soup. Spam. Spam. Spam.

"People order Spam?" I ask the counterman Ivan. "Yes," he confirms. "People order a lot of Spam."

Spam, the meat mix that is a combination of pork shoulder, ham and a host of other ingredients, is celebrating its 70th anniversary this year. The folks at Hormel Foods are rightly proud of their product. Indeed, they are beyond proud. They are downright protective.

So protective, that Hormel has been involved in a long-running, multi-million dollar trademark dispute with a company called Spam Arrest.

No, Spam Arrest is not some law enforcement agency. What it "arrests" is that other kind of spam: those repetitive, obnoxious e-mails we all get in our computer mailboxes. The ones that offer us sweetheart loans, useless beauty tips, miracle diets and the best sex of our lives. That kind of spam.

All Spam Is Not the Same

"Spam Arrest eliminates obnoxious e-mails by blocking them before they reach your mailbox," said Derek Newman, an attorney who is handling the case before a federal panel that resolves trademark disputes. "Hormel and the rest of the world should be happy that Spam Arrest is around to eliminate the obnoxious e-mail."

But Hormel is most assuredly not happy that somebody using the word spam is trying to profit from it.

"It's really important that [Spam] doesn't get confused with anything else," according to Julie Craven, who is a vice president at Hormel. "I think any time it's used inappropriately, it is under assault."

So what is an appropriate use?

Have you ever seen the Monty Python sketch involving a diner that serves Spam almost exclusively? A waiter recites a list of combinations that all apparently include Spam. Indeed, it is the repetition of the word over and over again that many believe started the alternate cyber definition of that other kind of spam.

Celebrating Spam

But Hormel thinks Monty Python is funny. The company may also be grateful that the sketch helped sell Spam, and Hormel is also a sponsor of the musical "Spamalot." And at the Spam Museum in Austin, Mn., you can screen Monty Python antics with the blessing of the folks at Hormel.

"This is a great example that we certainly get the joke about Spam," said Craven, "and we have a lot of fun with it too."

The museum is a veritable festival celebrating Spam. You can hear the first radio advertisement for the product. George Burns and Gracie Allen were the pitchmen. You can see how the cans have evolved. There's a puppet show, a cyber-diner, a movie theater where a group of women known as the Spamettes were singing and an archive attesting to Spam's contribution in various wars. (Soldiers loved the stuff because it never went bad and could fit easily in rucksacks.)

There is also a gift shop that features about 200 items that all carry the Spam trademark. Shot glasses, basketballs, mouse pads, sweaters, golf bags, beach towels and more. There's a cookbook with recipes for things like Spam risotto, Spam clam chowder, Spamburgers and so on.

What you won't find, though, is any mention of Spam Arrest. "It's important to avoid confusion," Craven insists.

'One of Their Most Important Assets

Nonsense, said Spam Arrest's attorney Newman. "They think that consumers believe that Spam Arrest might identify a meat product as opposed to a spam elimination product. We think that argument is without merit."

Newman and others believe that Hormel is really just upset that junk-mail has become known to be spam.

"Certainly if Hormel could change the world, they would prefer that junk e-mail not be known as spam," says Northwestern University law professor Jim Speta. He says others may tell Hormel to take a deep breath, but the legal tussle has a point.

"From Hormel's perspective -- the seller of billions and billions of cans of Spam that earn them billions and billions of dollars -- this is defense of one of their most important assets," he adds. Moreover, trademark law requires the holder to defend the mark or lose it.

Still, Speta doesn't think much of Hormel's case alleging consumer confusion between a food product and a cyber tool.

"I don't think there is a substantial possibility of blurring at this late date, blurring what Spam the canned luncheon meat means to people."

At the Aloha Grill "Nightline" asked several customers if they were uncertain about which was which. Certainly Hormel's lawyers would be disappointed to learn that none was confused. After all, it's really quite simple.

One you eat. The other you delete.

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