Parenting Blog Case Raises Motherlode of Trademark Issues

If a blog is successful and gains name recognition among the public, with whom is the brand associated in the minds of readers, the publisher or the primary author of the blog? Apparently not a lot of thought has gone into this interesting question, as the New York Times did not apply for a trademark for its popular “Motherlode” parenting blog until its primary author, Lisa Belkin, left the Times to create “Parentlode” at The Huffington Post. Now it will be up to the courts to determine whether the Times has exclusive trademark rights to the “Motherlode” name and similar-sounding derivatives.

The New York Times Co. sued the Huffington Post and AOL, its parent company, on November 4, 2011, in U.S. District Court in Manhattan, seeking both injunctive relief and damages. NYT’s trademark lawyers argue in the complaint that the mark “Parentlode” is “clearly derived” from the Times’ established “Motherlode” trademark and that it was “intended to create an association with Ms. Belkin’s prior work” at the Times. According to the complaint, there is evidence that confusion already exists in readers’ minds between the “Motherlode” blog, which the Times is continuing to publish, and the new “Parentlode” blog at the Huffington Post. On Twitter, for example, someone wrote (incorrectly, the Times argues) that “The NYT’s Motherlode becomes HuffPo’s Parentlode.”

In her first “Parentlode” blog entry, Belkin referred to “Parentlode” as a “new name” that in a nonsexist manner includes fathers as well as mothers. The Times seized upon this statement and wrote that Belkin “clearly intended to create an association in the minds of readers between the two competing blogs, and further, [Belkin’s] reference to the ‘new name’ was a deliberateMommyBaby.jpg attempt to mislead readers into mistakenly believing it was the same blog, albeit with a slightly different name and location.”

Clearly, the Times has a strong argument that “motherlode” is a real word that has come to be associated with the widely read parenting blog published on its website. “Parentlode” does not exist in the English language and certainly seems to have been selected as a play on the Motherlode name. But if there is a trademark in the Motherlode name, who owns it? Trademark law is designed to permit consumers to identify the source of goods or services. The source of most of the articles on Motherlode was Ms. Belkin, and consumers may associate the name more with Ms. Belkin than the NYT. Still, the blog was published on the NYT’s website and NYT alleges it came up with the Motherlode name and paid Ms. Belkin to write the content. From where I’m sitting, it appears the Times has a legitimate complaint.

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