Katonah vs. Martha Stewart


Village locals welcomed their new neighbor—until she tried to trademark the town's name. Now, they're fighting back

And while we were sleeping and the chief was cryin'

somebody snuck in and I ain't lyin'

And she's got plans

She's the personification of gracious living

So go the lyrics of a song composed for Martha Stewart last week. In a town littered with celebrities, Stewart might not have heard of fellow resident Marc Black. But this Katonah Village local celebrity loaned his vocal chords, singing talents, and guitar strumming, to a fund-raiser held at a new local joint, MoonRocks, where residents of the village gathered the last weekend in June, for a fund-raiser to help fight the attempt by Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia (MSO) to trademark the name of their village.

O.K., so Katonah isn't known for its protest songs. The tony suburb, 30 miles north of New York City, is quiet and picturesque, exuding a quaintness that has attracted the kind of people who have pushed the average home price above $900,000. The main street, historic Bedford Road, is shaded by broad-leafed trees and lined on either side with houses framed in delicate spindle-work carpentry. A short two-mile drive around the hamlet will take you to the larger estates, several ringed by stone walls.

It was one of these estates that Stewart bought in 2000, when she moved to town. She paid $16 million for a 153-acre estate, right next door to Ralph Lauren, fashion magnate and chief executive of Polo Ralph Lauren (RL). The hamlet's residents were at first thrilled to have her join the list of stars who lived there—Hollywood luminaries including Susan Sarandon, Tim Robbins, and Glenn Close.

A Potent Weapon

But now Katonah's locals are up in arms about Stewart's attempt to claim the name of the town, so it can be used to sell paints, lighting, and home accessories. The Katonah Village Improvement Society, the village's nonprofit community organization, has launched a campaign dubbed "Nobody Owns Katonah." It's raising money through fund-raisers, like the one at Moonrocks (where $3,000 was pulled in), to help pay for legal expenses to fight the initiative. "It's so rude to move into a town and then try to claim its name," says Diane Lauer, one resident supporting the effort.

What upsets locals is not that Stewart wants to use the Katonah name, but that she wants to lay claim to it with the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. If she succeeds, they fear they will have to get approval from her company to use the name themselves. Andrew Baren, co-owner of the high-end Katonah Architectural Hardware store, says, "Martha is a great client, and I couldn't be happier that she lives and shops here." But, he adds, "When I wanted to start my store, I didn't have to get permission from another business to take up the Katonah name, and I don't want my children to have to do that in the future."

The international law firm Curtis, Mallet-Prevost, Colt & Mosle has offered to fight the town residents' case pro bono. Andrew Seiden, who heads up the intellectual-property practice for the firm, says that often a large corporation can use a trademark as a potent weapon against small mom-and-pop businesses. "This trademark will be owned by a corporation forever, and small businesses will be hesitant to use a name that they have no means to fight," says Seiden. "That's what we're trying to prevent."

Protecting the Brand

Brand and retail experts say that Stewart's efforts to trademark are a way to protect her business from competitors, who could also start selling products using the Katonah name. The "Katonah Collection" line of furniture, launched in February, is being sold at Macy's (M). "Martha Stewart is, after all, all about brand, and she has to protect it," says Patricia Pao, founder of retail consultancy the Pao Principle.

Stewart has four other collections named for homes she has either lived in or owns: Turkey Hill, Lily Pond, Opal Point, and Skylands. The question now is whether the fight for Katonah is worth a spat that could end up hurting Stewart's reputation, especially if town residents continue to ratchet up the pressure. "Ultimately, for Martha, it's about ego and having it her way," says Pao.

Assistance from Around the Country

Support for the town's campaign is coming in from around the country. After the law firm offered to fight the case pro bono, far-flung clients of local businesses began writing out checks to the nonprofit group. Robert Frank, a Dallas-based trademark expert, has offered his research services for free. The descendants of Chief Katonah—the 17th century Indian chief for whom the community is named—have also joined the town in support. "Martha Stewart should respect the town's wishes," says Autumn Wind Scott, co-chair of the New Jersey State Commission on American Indian Affairs.

Still, despite the support flowing in from other corners, the fight is local. And even though the case will be fought in a trademark court, residents are letting their thoughts flow through a song:

We love you Martha…we like you here, you can belong here

but you just can't buy us, and simply own us,

Somebody should have told you, it's very wrong

to take our name and try to become Chief Katonah.

Gogoi is a contributing writer for BusinessWeek.com.

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