By Hillel Aron
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This has been a trying 12 months for the L.A. Weekly and its parent company, Village Voice Media. First, the company crushed a union-organizing drive in its advertising department. Next it fought off an antitrust complaint by the Justice Department. Then came news that a competing weekly newspaper would soon hit the stands — and that its ownership includes the printing company that the L.A. Weekly just fired. And all this during a rough economy.
And now comes The Beachwood Voice.
Yes, The Beachwood Voice, formerly known mainly to denizens of Hollywood’s Beachwood Canyon neighborhood, has now locked horns with the alternative-newspaper juggernaut, as first reported in New York Press.
It turns out that Fran Reichenbach, owner of the Beachwood rag, knowingly copied The Village Voicelogo for her paper’s masthead, substituting Beachwood for Village.
On came Kay & Boose, LLP, outside counsel for Village Voice Media. “There is absolutely no question but that your use of the Infringing Logo is a blatant rip-off,” wrote attorney Marcia B. Paul in a January letter. “Your actions constitute intentional trademark infringement, unfair competition and dilution in violation of the Lanham Act and of the common law.”
The Beachwood paper became the latest publication with Voice in its name to get stung. Some have caved in. One or two, like the Cape Cod Voice, remained defiant and lived to tell the tale. Only once did VVM actually file suit, over a paper in Indiana. That case was settled in 1998 when the Bloomington Voiceagreed to become the Bloomington Independent.
Out here, Reichenbach changed the offending logo and dropped The from the banner, making it Beachwood Voice. She’s not inclined to do more, despite a February 28 letter asserting that “Should your client determine not to change the name . . . it proceeds at its peril.”
The whole matter is flabbergasting to Reichenbach, who has an all-volunteer staff, loves to feature stories about pets, and prints 6,000 copies of her four-times-a-year paper. The Village Voicehas a circulation of 250,000.
“It’s really not about us,” she said. “We have no plans to take L.A. by storm, creep into other markets and create discomfort for The Village Voiceon the East Coast. But the word voice should not be owned by anyone. It’s a word like times and herald and tribune. The fact that we are a small community newspaper and that we were approached by Village Voice in such a manner really places a spotlight on them, their agenda and what they’re about.”
The episode underscores that alternative newspapers are indeed a business, despite lofty and lefty editorial politics. And they’re run by people who run them just like conservatives run their own businesses. So it’s no longer such a surprise VVM would oppose an internal union drive. Or that it would provoke an antitrust investigation for allegedly engaging in illegal, anti-competitive practices. Or that it would bigfoot Beachwood Voice.
Trademark laws were designed to protect the public from confusion and fraud (like an impostor who called his film company Codak), but brand names have become valuable, marketable commodities unto themselves. VVM says it’s got a valid claim — not to mention actual federal Registration Number 913,683 for the “VOICE Family of Marks,” which includes “THE VOICE, Café, and THE VILLAGE VOICE Obies,” as its letter pointed out.
Newspapers had voice in their names before the 1955 birth of The Village Voice, and VVM won’t challenge every use of the word, “but if you don’t take reasonable steps to maintain what is distinctive about your mark, you can lose it,” said outside attorney Paul.
But isn’t it flattery, free promotion and even homage when other papers consider the word voice to have a distinctive, journalistically meaningful ring?
“The line between homage and theft can sometimes be fluid,” said Paul, “but using a confusingly similar mark in circumstances where the public might make an association or connection where it isn’t warranted, isn’t purely homage. It’s a form of theft.”
Maybe so, but Village Voiceco-founder Norman Mailer wrote that such tactics were “enough to make one retch . . . It violates everything The Village Voicestood for over the decades.”
To which company general counsel Susan Meisel responded: “Norman Mailer hasn’t had any involvement with The Village Voicefor at least 30 years.”