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Heyl: Pro-marijuana group's trademark troubles a Pittsburgh tradition

| Sunday, Oct. 18, 2015, 10:51 p.m.
Pittsburgh NORML's logo
Pittsburgh NORML's logo

This town takes its trademarks seriously.

You don't have to be a horticulturist to appreciate this irony: Pittsburgh grass proponents got in trouble for infringing on the Steelers' turf. In a dispute that surprisingly has nothing to do with Heinz Field's much-maligned playing surface, the Pittsburgh chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws was warned its logo too closely resembles that of the Steelers.

The National Football League, flexing its considerable legal muscle, sent a cease-and-desist letter to NORML with an ominous implication: Unless you stoners want to suit up against us in Litigation Field, your logo should be retired posthaste.

“I'm frankly surprised it took them six years to notice,” said Patrick Nightingale, a Downtown attorney and the city NORML chapter's executive director. “Pittsburgh is a small city, and everybody knows the Steelers and the Rooneys.”

Another reason why this hardly is a shocking development: Companies in this town often wage war over trademarks.

For example, take Eat'n Park, the Homestead-based restaurant chain, whose executives do more than frown any time they see anyone else put a smiley face on a cookie. Those executives litigate.

At least seven times since 2002, Eat'n Park has gone to court to defend its trademarked Smiley Cookie. Each time the defendant agreed to pay Eat'n Park a licensing fee to continue making cheerful-looking cookies or to eliminate entirely the cookie's cheerful mood.

Who knew a facial expression could be the exclusive property of a particular company?

Another example: In March 2014, the H.J. Heinz Corp. sent an unmistakable message to a Texas company that made a ketchup bottle similar to its own iconic one: Mess with our brand, and we'll draw blood that will run much more rapidly than the contents of our trademarked bottles. A month after Heinz filed a lawsuit against the Dallas-based Figueroa Brothers, the company settled and agreed to change the shape of its containers.

Order to the often chaotic ketchup universe was restored.

In yet another trademark squabble, the East End Brewing Co. and a San Antonio bar and restaurant chain are making a big deal over the Big Hop name.

They're arguing in federal court over which of them has more of a right to the moniker: East End Brewing, which has used the name for more than a decade, or J&J Martindale Ventures, which trademarked it last year.

Are NORML's trademark problems over once it consigns its Steelers logo to history, as Nightingale has promised to do? Possibly not.

Nightingale said the organization long has used an alternative sports-related one. “It's a Penguins-version logo with the penguin holding a bong and lighter instead of a hockey stick,” he said.

Uh-oh.

Eric Heyl is a Trib Total Media staff writer. Reach him at 412-320-7857 or eheyl@tribweb.com.

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