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Lawyer letters

Paul Moore, our public editor, gets most of the complaints, but there are certain classes that I can reliably expect to be forwarded to the copy desk. Among them are letters from law firms complaining that The Sun has used some company’s trademark or service mark improperly. Whenever we allow Instant Messenger (an AOL product) or Rolodex or Styrofoam to get into print, we can expect to get a sharply worded lawyer letter informing us that we have stepped on the client’s interests.

Typically, we get these letters when we have used the name of a product in some generic or metaphoric sense. Some of these instances reflect ignorance or laziness. Disposable plastic foam cups and plates, for example, are not made of Styrofoam, which is used mainly in insulation.

And the expression that some defeated politico or disgraced lobbyist will be “taking his Rolodex with him,” which one sees repeatedly in print, uses Rolodex as a metaphoric shorthand for contacts or connections, without any regard to possession of the actual product. Why a writer would use such an arrant cliche is a little puzzling. It is not, I think, that the writer mistakes an expression seen a thousand times as originality. I suspect that the writer, having seen the expression a thousand times, appropriates it, thinking, “I’m running with the big dogs now.”

I have been given assurances in the past that these lawyer letters have little import in most cases. The firms that write them have to show that they are vigilant in defending the client’s intellectual property by challenging every instance they come across. If they did not, the client’s trademark or service mark could go the way of xerox or kleenex. But the likelihood of a particular reporter's or newspaper's facing dire consequences is slight.

Please — I am not a lawyer (or an attorney)
so do not mistake this post for legal advice. I do not suggest disregarding these letters.

One extra-legal reason to heed these legal cautions is self-interest — which I would prefer to dress up in loftier, ethical terms. The Sun, too, produces intellectual property, our articles and images. When some broadcaster pads out a newscast by essentially reading from our paper without naming us as a source, we are affronted. So, in the tit-for-tat world of Kant’s categorical imperative, if we want our name (or brand in the winsome jargon of marketing) to be acknowledged and respected, it is incumbent on us to acknowledge and respect the brands of other companies.    

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:06 AM | | Comments (2)


"Xerox" lost its trademark?

Dow Chemical Co. sent our paper a ceramic mug with "There is no such thing as a Styrofoam cup" printed on it after offending their trademark. A little more memorable than a letter.

And when did Kleenex and Xerox cease to be trademarks? ;-)

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at
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