Sunday, October 21, 2012

By happenstance, I notice two "Stray Cat" cafes, when "on the road"; Does "Romney" really favor small business?


On Friday Oct. 19, 2012, as I was leaving the Potomac Eagle scenic railroad attraction near Romney, W Va, I noticed a sign for a “Stray Cat Café”.  I drove three miles east of Romney on US 50, and found the establishment in a large strip mall on a hill above the highway (it’s hard to see from the car on Rt 50).  It appeared to feature Mexican fare.  Since I had recently eaten lunch on the excursion train, I didn’t stop for dinner.

This restaurant caught my eye because in Arlington VA, in the Westover shopping center along Washington Blvd, there is a “Stray VCat Café” a few doors down from a “Lost Dog Café” , which I reported (here on July 28) as involved in a trademark dispute with a “Lost Dog Coffee” business in Shepherdstown, W Va, perhaps 50 miles NE of Romney, still in the Potomac Highlands area of the state.

The website for the Arlington business has the original URL name, here

I have eaten there before, and recall mainly American fare.

The website for the Romney business has a different URL with the word “Romney”, here

Curiously, the only trademark that I found on the USPTO website is for a business in Keyser, W VA (30 miles from Romney), more logically related probably to the Romney business, serial 74451611, registration number 1866076.  

I honestly don’t know if the businesses are separate or share a trademark license for the name from a common owner, or whether the USPTO recognizes the name as not unique enough to be restrictive, even within on industry. (Note the comments on the USPTO record.)  But if these businesses can operate separately in different states with the same name, why wouldn’t the same be true of “lost dog”?  It’s easy to sit around and imagine other reproducible names for restaurants and bars; how about “Stupid Kid”?   It would seem that the Trademark Dilution Act of 2006, however, might make businesses repeating names in other states more vulnerable (perhaps not an intended consequence).

Wall Street likes franchises, and American law tends to encourage them, with restrictive use of brand names for retail and food/beverage businesses especially.  That state of affairs tends to encourage individuals and families to consider franchise business ownership rather than trying to set up their own brands.  That means that someone “owns” a business but must follow the practices of the branding or franchising company closely.  This could never be my own cup of tea.
    
It seems that the trademark question invokes a deep philosophical question about the balance between small and big business in the economy. Neither major political party (they both talk about small business) has come clean in talking about this issue, as both are beholden to political contributions from large corporations.  It’s ironic that this little field observation occurred in a small city with the same name (Romney) as the GOP presidential candidate.  What would he say about trademarks, franchises, and small businesses?

This problem is a “bricks and mortar world” issue.  It could have occurred before we had the Internet.  But in older times, people were less likely to remember businesses in other cities.  I discovered this “stray cat” by happenstance.

I recall a dispute between Amazon.com and an “Amazon Book Store” in Minneapolis back in the late 1990s. 

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