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Fritz Clapp Letter to H-D

It takes muscle to avoid.  Not strained, forced muscle; but strength that’s supple, agile, free-flowing: that’s the tone of a healthy brand.

Yet, Harley-Davidson is using all its muscle and threatening people… all disguised as protecting brand equity.  It can only lead to more legal costs and is often the case, bad press.

So what’s the background?  It seems that H-D is fresh off a boot butt kicking contest with the Marlon Brando estate — Brando Enterprises LP — along with Wolverine Worldwide Inc., and agreed to settle a suit over the unlicensed use of the Brando name on a Harley-branded boot that resembled the ones Brando wore when he played Johnny Strabler in the 1953 movie “The Wild One.”  That whole gig had to have cost the company some pocket change just to run it through the court system process only to get to the point of where all parties mutually decided to “agree” that there wasn’t any infringement.

It’s no secret, the motor company has an extensive licensing business, and last year it generated $43.2M selling the rights to use its name on products ranging from jewelry to cake decorations.

Not satisfied with their “boot win” the trademark bloodhounds at H-D decided that a 6-week old forum web site called HarleySpace.com was threatening one of the world’s most recognized brands and told the owner to “cease and desist” using the name because it’s a trademark infringement.  Huh?  Doesn’t this show just how far they’ll go in pursuing the exclusivity of a famous trademark?

In my view this has the markings of a Susan G. Komen for the cure public relations fiasco written all over it.

Mr. Fritz Clapp

The owner of the site, James Coulbourne did what most of us would do and hired an attorney.  Not just any lawyer, but Fritz Clapp, who is most often known for representing the Hells Angels Motorcycle Club (HAMC) in intellectual property cases and goes by the name “lawyer from Hell” on his website.  Having sued the Walt Disney Co., Marvel Comics, and the late fashion designer Alexander McQueen to protect the HAMC name, Mr. Clapp knows a little bit about trademark law/infringement and enthusiastically took on the case at no charge!

If you do a Google search you’ll find that there are many, many other motorcycle blogs and social media sites with the name Harley in them.  They are clearly noncommercial and are easily and immediately distinguishable from the commercial merchandise offered and sold bearing the Harley brand.  So what’s their beef?  It seems that Mr. Coulbourne sent emails to Harley-Davidson dealerships promoting his 6-week-old website and that sent the trademark boys over the abyss. 

As educated consumers we know that great brands have a core clarity to them.  Enthusiasm spreads the message.  It also unburdens the company from having to force-feed passion for the brand and they should no longer be focused on convincing. Instead, their goal should be revealing. Others testify to H-D attributes and for this to happen, they need to give up some control because the core H-D brand identity is firmly in hand.

UPDATE: April 25, 2012 – Last week (April 20th), Mr. Coulbourne changed the name of his biker social-networking site from HarleySpace.com to IronRides.com. 

Photo courtesy of Fritz Clapp, IP Magazine and James Coulbourne.

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Contrary to some of the comments on previous posts, I’m really not on a rant about motorcycle gangs or evangelizing that riders join any Rotary Club on wheels. 

I have noticed that there is a renewed interest and a lot of media attention surrounding television shows on outlaw biker gangs.  These shows follow two types of stereotypes, the bad evil biker dudes or the cuddly “Wild Hogs“.  The latest is the FX cable network which ordered up 13-episodes of the drama series called “Sons of Anarchy,” which centers on an outlaw biker “club” and how the club’s efforts to protect its home in fictional Charming, Calif., from suburbanization.

The show was originally called “Forever Sam Crow”,  however, the litigation happy Hells Angels caught wind of the pilot from Kurt Sutter (writer & director) who was in a Variety interview and there were references to a specific Northern CA. motorcycle “club”…shortly after the interview hit the newswire they received a cease and desist notice from the same “club”.  Something about copyright infringement so, the name of the TV show and club was changed.

This is reminiscent of last years lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court of CA where the Hells Angels Motorcycle Corporation claimed the characters in the Disney movie “Wild Hogs” were identified as members of the “club”.  I don’t know about you, but Dudley didn’t make me nervous sporting leather clad gear and a do-rag.

And then there’s HBO’s show under development called “1%” from “The Player” writer Michael Tolkin about a biker “club” in small-town Arizona.  The outlaw biker gang phenomenon has always made for interesting debate, but with the media getting involved things have gotten dicey because some of the actual places named and used in the script were identifiably associated with Sonny Barger and the Hells Angels (such as the primary location being Carefree, AZ, which is the town adjacent to where Barger presently resides, and that the principal character moved there from Northern CA, which is what Barger did too).  Barger’s production company pulled out the litigation play book and sued HBO in Los Angeles.  The 60-year old wants the court to declare the “1% Script” as a joint work with Tolkin, enjoin Tolkin and HBO from selling or exhibiting the program, and award compensatory damages for exploiting Barger’s publicity rights.  Fritz Clapp is Barger’s attorney to the complaint (courtesy of Reporter blog) contends that the script was developed with Barger’s collaboration, however, HBO, the White Mountain Company, and writer/producer Michael Tolkin cut him out of the project and violated his publicity rights when he demanded changes.

Whether you’re a biker “club” (as members say), a gang (as police allege), or a syndicate (as federal agents charge) one thing is clear… do-gooder philanthropists donating to toys-for-tots doesn’t sell anything.  But, marauding drug dealers, corruption, crime, murder and mayhem sells advertising and that’s what this is all about.  Media companies serving up another dish of nightly violent entertainment for middle-Americans about jack-booted thugs posing as celebrities who are either misunderstood or maligned to get you to buy another tube of toothpaste.

I’m thinking Fox should have a “Biker Gang Survival” channel.  Let’s call it “American Loser”…the show will make millions!

 

Photo is courtesy of Kurt Sutter blog.

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