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Spam Maker Tells Firm to Can It

Times Staff Writer

It’s a case of Spam vs. spam.

It would seem hard to confuse the trademark canned meat with junk e-mail. But Hormel Foods Corp. thinks otherwise.

Hormel, which markets the canned meat Spam, has taken issue with SpamArrest’s request to trademark its name.

The Seattle-based software and Internet company, whose product blocks unwanted unsolicited commercial e-mails for subscribers, filed for two international trademarks in early 2002. This year, the Austin, Minn.-based food producer -- which has marketed Spam since its creation 66 years ago -- filed a suit with the Patent and Trademark Office to stop the trademark’s approval.

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Hormel’s claim: The trademark of those four letters belongs to it, and it alone, and it doesn’t want people thinking of junk e-mail every time they see a can of the meat.

If you ask the Internet firm, though, the little blue can was the “last thing” on its mind when the name was chosen.

“There’s no possible way that a computer program to stop junk e-mail could be in any way confused with a canned meat product,” SpamArrest spokesman Allen Priaulx said.

Hormel’s official position on “spam” as a word? The company does not object to the use of the “slang” term, its Web site said, but draws the line when it comes to trademarking that name. “Ultimately, we are trying to avoid the day when the consuming public asks, ‘Why would Hormel Foods name its product after junk e-mail?’ ”

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“We understand -- we don’t like junk e-mail either, and we understand that ‘spam’ has become a term generic in use,” Hormel spokeswoman Julie Craven said. “But we have an obligation to step in when it’s filed as a trademark.”

Craven said the term became synonymous with virtual junk mail in the early 1990s, thanks to a Monty Python skit that featured Spam.

“In this skit, a group of Vikings sang a chorus of ‘spam, spam, spam ... ' in an increasing crescendo, drowning out other conversation,” said a statement on the company Web site, www.spam.com. “Hence, the analogy applied because [unsolicited commercial e-mail] was drowning out normal discourse on the Internet.”

But SpamArrest is only one of more than 60 firms with “spam” in the name that have registered with the Patent and Trademark Office. More than half of those requests are pending; many others have been dropped or denied.

Priaulx doesn’t understand why the meat company is going after SpamArrest.

“Nobody likes spam,” he said.

Craven said that as far as she knows, Hormel challenges every firm that tries to trademark a name with “spam” in it and that Hormel has won each of the more than a dozen challenges.

Mark Krull, a patent attorney in Bend, Ore., says companies such as Hormel fear trademark infringement for two reasons: The power of their name could become “diluted” by too much use; or if the name becomes widely used for a particular type of product -- as aspirin did -- it could become generic and lose the trademark.

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“If a name becomes truly generic, anyone can use it, and that’s a problem,” he said.

Priaulx said SpamArrest was “pretty confident” that when the challenge goes before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, possibly as soon as this fall, the trademark will “zip right through.”

Hormel, meanwhile, is confident its Spam will remain the only one with a trademark.


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