Supreme Court Passes on Tiger Trademark Dispute

W A S H I N G T O N, Oct. 16., 2000 -- The Supreme Court stayed out of a cat fightinvolving two well-known cartoon trademarks: cereal-maker KelloggCo.’s Tony the Tiger and the old Exxon “Put a Tiger in Your Tank”ad campaign.

The court, without comment today, let stand a lower courtruling that Kellogg did not wait too long before trying to stopExxon Mobil Corp. from using its own cartoon tiger.That means Kellogg’s trademark lawsuit can go to trial inTennessee.

Exxon had argued that Kellogg only complained “after more than30 years of peaceful coexistence” between Tony and the “Tiger inYour Tank” cartoon.

Kellogg’s suit says Exxon discontinued the tiger gasoline adsduring the 1980s, but then came out with new ads in the 1990sfeaturing a cartoon tiger promoting various food and convenienceitems sold at Exxon gas stations.

Mature Trademarks

Tony the Tiger debuted in 1952 and has appeared on every box ofKellogg’s Frosted Flakes since. The cereal sold $5.3 billionbetween 1952 and 1995, Kellogg said. Millions of children also knewthe tiger as the cereal’s gruff-voiced television pitchman duringSaturday morning cartoons.

Exxon, then known as Standard Oil, introduced its tiger in 1964.The trademarked cartoon figure was used in advertising and inpromotional giveaways, such as juice glasses offered with a fill-up.Later, a real tiger was used in many ads.

Four years ago, Kellogg filed a federal lawsuit claiming that the newExxon tiger promotions for soda, coffee and other products violatedthe Tony trademark because Exxon was now using a tiger to sellfood.

The oil company has been known as Exxon Mobil since its mergerwith Mobil Co. last year.

“Tony the Tiger is not only famous in the cereal and breakfastfood market, but his fame and recognition permeate the entire foodcategory,” Kellogg’s lawyers said in court papers.

Food Branding at Issue

A federal judge in Memphis threw out the case in 1998, meaningExxon could continue using its tiger. The 6th U.S. Circuit Court ofAppeals resurrected the case and sent it back to the judge fortrial.

In the appeal acted on today, Exxon’s lawyers said Kellogg lostthe right to sue by waiting so long to do so. Exxon cited adoctrine of law that generally says that even a valid claim can bevoided by negligence or laxness in pursuing it.

Exxon argued that other federal courts have interpreted thestandard differently in trademark cases, and asked the SupremeCourt to settle those differences.

In its court papers, Kellogg’s lawyers said Exxon exaggeratedthe differences among the appeals courts. Kellogg said taking thecase to the Supreme Court will only further delay a trial on thebasic question of whether Exxon is violating the Tony trademark.

The case is Exxon Mobil Corp. vs. Kellogg Co., 00-252.