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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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