Oatmeal v. Oatmeal : Popular Web Comic Sued for Trademark Infringement
Just a few months ago, The Oatmeal author Matthew Inman finally put to rest the odd legal dispute between his web comic and the humor website FunnyJunk. Now, the web comic artist is back in court – this time to refute claims that his collaboration with Papyrus-Recycled Greetings infringes on the trademark owned by Oatmeal Studios, a Massachusetts-based greeting card company that has sold greeting cards for thirty-five years.
Oatmeal Studios’ suit alleges trademark infringement and seeks to stop Inman from using “The Oatmeal” in relation to greeting cards. Oatmeal Studios claims that Inman’s use of “The Oatmeal” on his greeting cards is too similar and is likely to cause confusion to customers, who may mistakenly believe the two companies are related. When asked for a statement regarding the lawsuit, Oatmeal Studios claimed to have “sent a cease and desist letter and filed a complaint to address this issue.” In the suit, Oatmeal Studios demands that Inman stop selling his greeting cards on The Oatmeal website (“the Infringing Website”) and claims harm to Oatmeal Studios because Inman and Papyrus-Recycled Greetings solicit business and commercial transactions internationally and throughout the United States, including Massachusetts, where Oatmeal Studios is based.
Trademark law protects a trademark owner’s exclusive right to use their mark. The Lanham Act protects the owner of a mark against the use of similar marks if such use is likely to result in consumer confusion or dilution of the mark. To show a Lanham Act violation, the plaintiff must prove that (1) it has a valid and legally protectable mark (whether registered or unregistered); (2) that it owns the mark; and (3) that the defendant’s use of the mark to identify goods or services causes a likelihood of confusion.
Oatmeal Studios’ suit attempts to show that all three requirements of the Lanham Act are satisfied by claiming that (1) “Oatmeal Studios” is a valid and protectable mark; (2) Oatmeal Studios owns the trademark; and (3) that “The Oatmeal” mark is substantially similar to Oatmeal Studios’ mark as it appears on products sold by Oatmeal Studios and may cause consumer confusion in relevant markets by causing customers to believe that the two businesses are related or associated with each other. In addition, the suit claims that Inman’s use of the mark may constitute “… a reproduction, copying, [and] counterfeiting.”
The first two requirements are easily satisfied by Oatmeal Studios: (1) A search of Oatmeal Studios on the U.S. Patents and Trademark Office site’s basic word mark search shows that the company has a registered mark that is valid and legally protectable (2) and Oatmeal Studios is “… the rightful owner of the mark. However, the last requirement, (3) the likelihood of confusion, will be harder for the greeting card company to show. While it is true that Oatmeal Studios has used their mark on greeting cards for many years, which “Oatmeal” is actually more identifiable? Arguably, Inman’s signature web comic is more recognizable to the public, making it less likely for those that see greetings cards bearing Inman’s “The Oatmeal” to confuse them with the greeting cards sold by Oatmeal Studios. If Inman can show this to be true, the suit’s claim of customer confusion is likely to be undermined.
While the suit seems to be primarily aimed at Papyrus-Recycled Greetings, The Oatmeal author, Matthew Inman, is still a named party. While Inman recently “won” when FunnyJunk dropped their defamation suit against him, the web comic’s style of banter is what drew the most attention. Many people are, without a doubt, awaiting Inman’s likely comical response to the newest lawsuit against him.