Author Sues Chobani Yogurt, Says He Owns the Word 'How'

Soeren Stache/AFP/Getty ImagesDov Seidman runs
Author and business ethics consultant Dov Seidman has sued the Greek-style yogurt company Chobani over the word "how." Why? Because he claims the food company had tramped over his trademark with its "How Matters" marketing campaign, as the New York Times reported.

Seidman owns a consulting company, LRN, which has hundreds of full-time employees and helps companies improve their ethical practices and regulatory compliance. One client is reportedly the National Football League, which has certainly seen a number of criticisms and challenges on the ethical front.

Seidman wrote a book called "How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything," with an "expanded" edition published in 2011, according to the listing. Bill Clinton wrote the foreword. (Full disclosure: In 2008 and 2009, I wrote some articles for a Seidman website.)

How Now?

Normally, a person isn't supposed to be able to get a trademark on a common word, but (to borrow from Clinton) perhaps it all depends on what the meaning of "how" is. In filings with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, Seidman applied for a number of trademarks in 2013 on a number of uses of "how," in law, ethics, business regulatory compliance, legal compliance, business conduct and governance and related areas. The trademarks would cover publications, consulting services, educational services, software -- even board and card games.

No mention of yogurt or of "How Matters." Seidman has looked for trademarks on some other phrases, including "How Is the Answer" and "The How Report."

According to Seidman, Chobani's campaign steps over a line because of the importance it ascribes to the ways in which a company behaves. So he sued Chobani and its ad agency, Droga5.

Inspired to Start a Branding Campaign

Chobani reportedly claims that the similarities are a coincidence, according to the New York Daily News and asserts that the "allegations are baseless and without merit." But in January, Chobani sent a message to Seidman on Twitter, stating, "Thanks for inspiring the world to care about 'how.' Can you help inspire the food industry, too?"

As the Daily News wrote: "The 'very next day,' the suit says, the company "launched Chobani's new branding platform -- which employs 'how' in precisely the same manner as plaintiffs employ their how marks: as a noun connoting responsible and ethical corporate behaviors." Chobani ran its ads on the Super Bowl, the Olympics and the Academy Awards.

Under trademark law, owners have a duty to legally protect their intellectual property or risk losing any protection. The Daily News says that Seidman is suing for unnamed monetary damages and asking the court to order an end to the campaign.

Accusations and Apologies

The paper also reported that Chobani had been accused of lifting things before: namely, the formula for its yogurt from rival Fage, according to court papers filed by the ex-wife of Chobani's founder.

Perhaps Chobani could try a nice apology. But it better be careful: Seidman and Andrew Ross Sorkin launched Apology Watch, as Gawker reported, in which they planned to monitor corporate apologies, so any apology had better be good. Ironically, writers Susan McCarthy and Marjorie Ingall started their SorryWatch blog in 2012, and have asked Seidman and Sorkin to acknowledge their work and apologize for not giving them the credit they're due. The men refused to do so, according to SorryWatch.

Maybe everyone should go cool off with a nice cup of frozen yogurt. Greek-style, of course.

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