Defending Its Doughboy Trademark, Pillsbury Pounces on Tiny Bakery
Pillsbury forced small bakery to change its name, claiming trademark violation.
Aug. 11, 2010— -- David may have made short work of Goliath, but taking on a huge corporation was never an option for small business owner Tami Cromar.
A few weeks ago, the founder of a Salt Lake City-based bakery, My Dough Girl, got a letter from General Mills, the conglomerate that owns Pillsbury. To the 45-year-old entrepreneur's surprise, the food giant had written to inform her she needed to change the name of her business -- claiming it was too similar to Pillsbury's famous doughboy mascot -- or she risked facing legal action.
Cromar decided, essentially, that was just the way the cookie crumbles.
"I started baking cookies as a way to bring happiness to myself and others, so I really didn't need this to become some canker on my existence," Cromar said. "Plus, I just don't have the resources to fight them."
The case marks the second time in recent weeks that a major corporation has taken issue with a small business over possible trademark infringement.
Dairy Queen, which is owned by Warren Buffet's Berkshire Hathaway, last month asked a court to stop Yogubliz, a Downey, Calif., yogurt shop, from selling a product called Blizzberry. DQ felt it was too similar in name to its popular Blizzard menu item.
Responding to a cease and desist letter, Yogubliz had earlier filed a preemptive suit asking a judge to establish that it is within its rights using the name. A hearing on the matter has been set for later this month.
Even though it may seem as if these massive corporations are frivolously bullying relatively insignificant competitors, all companies, large or small, have to protect their trademarks at every turn, lest they lose them, said James Rittinger, an intellectual property attorney with the New York City law firm of Satterlee Stephens Burke & Burke.
"Trademark law, unlike copyright law, where you can pick and choose who you want to sue, requires the trademark holder to police its mark," Rittinger said. "Otherwise, the mark can become weakened -- diluted, in trademark parlance -- or even lost."
Large companies are often criticized for picking on mom-and-pop shops, but really they have no choice, Rittinger said.
"If they do not take action, they severely jeopardize the strength of their valuable trademarks," he said.
Added White Plains, N.Y.-based trademark attorney Thomas Wilentz, "Anyone starting a new business or coming out with a new product has to do an extensive trademark search. ... You wouldn't buy a house without doing a title search."
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