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Chobani Claims That No One Owns the Word ‘How’

During last year’s Super Bowl, Chobani and its ad agency Droga5 told us that “how matters.” It was a brilliant Chipotle-style CSR call-to-arms that led, in part, to speculation that the company will soon go public.

Now author/ethics consultant Dov Seidman and his lawyers want to make that filing process a bit more difficult.

Seidman, whose best-selling book bore the title How: Why How We Do Anything Means Everything and an introduction by no less than Bill Clinton, filed suit against both agency and client yesterday for “trademark and service mark infringement and unfair competition.”

For some reason, he seems to think that the campaign might have been related to his book…

Interestingly, Seidman’s company LRN retweeted the message above before declaring it to be lawsuit-worthy. A little extra explanation after the jump.

“Plaintiffs, whose business is based on promoting ethical corporate behavior, own federal trademark registrations for the word and mark HOW and have also developed common law rights in HOW and other HOW-based marks over a period of years. Plaintiffs’ HOW marks convey a clear and consistent meaning: that how an organization behaves matters.”

Just as Apple recently tried to trademark the word “startup” and Google tried to trademark the word “glass”, so Seidman and his company claim to own the rights to the word “how” and its best friend “matters”–at least when they’re applied to all things ethical and business-ish. The tagline “It’s not just what you do, but how you do it that matters” does sort of resemble Seidman’s “It’s no longer what you do that matters most but how you do it.”

Seidman claims that he tried to discuss the matter without taking things to court but that company reps said any similarity between the messages was “purely coincidental.”

Here’s Chobani’s statement via MediaPost:

“Mr. Seidman’s allegations are baseless and without merit. Chobani chose ‘How Matters’ as its platform because it represents what Chobani has always stood for, including its use of natural ingredients to make wholesome and nutritious food. Mr. Seidman does not own a trademark registration for ‘How Matters’ and has never used that phrase as a trademark. Numerous other companies use phrases including the word ‘how’ in connection with marketing language and corporate social responsibility phrasing, and Mr. Seidman himself argued to the trademark office that there is no likelihood of confusion in circumstances similar to these. We are confident that our use of ‘How Matters’ does not violate any legal rights of Mr. Seidman, and accurately portrays who we are and what we do.”

This is a bit tricky, isn’t it? While Seidman hasn’t trademarked the phrase “how matters”, he has trademarked the word “how”, which just happens to appear very close to its partner “matters” in his tagline.

The tweet does make Chobani’s statement seem a bit disingenuous, but for the record we have to agree with the company: the very concept of claiming sole rights to a series of two words, used together in order, is the sort of thing that gives the legal profession a less-than-ideal reputation.

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