Families in California and across the country may face conflicts when business and even intellectual property enter the picture. In one case, relatives of Phyllis Schlafly, the well-known late conservative activist, failed to block a brewery owned by a relative from trademarking their surname. A panel of the U.S. Federal Circuit Court of Appeals ruled unanimously in favor of Saint Louis Brewing LLC, co-founded by a nephew of Schlafly. He applied in 2011 to trademark his last name for his Schlafly-branded beer.
One judge said in the ruling that through the sales of beer under the Schlafly name, it had acquired a distinctive, secondary meaning. Once that point has been reached, it is possible to trademark a surname. Between 2009 and 2014, sales of Schlafly beer reached 74.8 million bottles, cans and servings on draft. The brewery began selling beer under the name in 1991. Despite the growing popularity of the beer, other members of the family intervened in an attempt to block the trademark. Phyllis Schlafly and her son claimed that the trademark could injure their reputations by associating them with alcohol despite being well-known for their conservative politics.
Another member of the Schlafly family represented the challengers in the legal battle over the trademark. He said that his clients planned to seek a hearing from the Supreme Court in the case, noting that in their view, the name was still primarily a surname and not a brand of beer, rendering the trademark invalid. This position has been rejected so far.
When businesses want to protect their unique names and brand identities, trademarks can be an important part of a company’s intellectual property. However, infringers or even others may seek to block or challenge a registered mark. A lawyer may help business owners handle all levels of trademark matters, including registrations, disputes and infringement litigation.