In an article published in July 2011, Entrepreneur magazine spent a half-dozen paragraphs trumpeting the wisdom of Michael Burcham, the director of a Nashville business incubator called the Entrepreneur Center. Four months later, the magazine’s publisher, Entrepreneur Media Inc. (EMI), asserted that the incubator’s website infringed on the magazine’s trademark. In February 2012, EMI sued the Entrepreneur Center in federal court. According to the Tennessean newspaper, the Entrepreneur Center is suing back.
If it all sounds familiar, that’s because it’s happened before. A lot. As Bloomberg Businessweek’s Paul M. Barrett reported in May 2011, EMI has a reputation as a trademark bully:
EMI goes after a broad spectrum of businesses, ranging from Internet startups to a fledgling clothing manufacturer. In 2001 it persuaded the nonprofit Donald H. Jones Center for Entrepreneurship at Carnegie Mellon University to change the title of its quarterly alumni newsletter, The Entrepreneur. In 2004 it stopped 3Entrepreneurs, a San Diego apparel company, from putting the phrase “Entrepreneur Generation” on T-shirts, sweaters, and hats. At present, EMI is skirmishing with the Entrepreneur Hall of Fame and Museum, a one-man website based in Glen Cove, N.Y., with aspirations of someday occupying a brick-and-mortar facility.
At the time of his story, Barrett reported that EMI relied on a judicial trend toward an expanded idea of consumer confusion—allowing the publisher to argue that a business incubator or a public-relations firm with the word “entrepreneur” in its name could be confused with its brand.
To that end, EMI’s lawsuit against the Entrepreneur Center spends a fair amount of time describing the ways in which the two companies’ websites look alike: “both feature columns and blogs in which entrepreneurs provide business advice and articles on business-related topics.” Another point of contention: “both websites display under the ENTREPRENEUR Mark a horizontal menu bar across the top of the main page.” (There’s a reason they don’t make courtroom thrillers out of trademark suits.)
A spokeswoman for the Entrepreneur Center declined to comment on the litigation. EMI’s lawyer didn’t return a call for comment on Friday.
For its part, the Entrepreneur Center—a public-private partnership founded in 2010 to support the local startup ecosystem—is arguing that “entrepreneur” is a generic word that’s been around for more than 150 years. But EMI says that if the Entrepreneur Center expands, that could hurt the magazine’s brand. From the Tennessean:
“We don’t claim we own the word. We have limited trademark rights on it,” [EMI lawyer Mark] Finkelstein said. “If the company goes national, could it cause confusion? Could it dilute the brand?”
Seeing itself as a victim of so-called trademark bullying, the Entrepreneur Center maintains that EMI’s trademark should not preclude others from using it.
Attorney Ed Lanquist, who represents the Entrepreneur Center, would not comment on the substance of the lawsuit beyond saying that his client had agreed to add “Nashville” to the company’s name—but not fast enough to satisfy EMI.