Spam lawsuit's last laugh is at Hormel's expense

  • Article by: STEVE ALEXANDER , Star Tribune
  • Updated: November 29, 2007 - 11:33 AM

Ruling says consumers of the canned product wouldn't confuse it with "Spam Arrest" software that blocks unwanted e-mail.

How much spam is too much?

According to Monty Python, there's never too much (more on that in a moment). But according to Austin, Minn.-based meat processor Hormel Foods Corp., anybody else's product called Spam is too much. Even a non-food product that blocks junk e-mail shouldn't be able to use the word "Spam" in its name because it damages the trademark of the famous Hormel meat that was introduced in 1937, the company said.

But Hormel may have lost at least part of that argument. In a closely watched lawsuit against a Seattle-based company, Spam Arrest, the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled against Hormel, saying that consumers of canned Spam wouldn't confuse it with "Spam Arrest" software that blocks unwanted e-mail, which now is generically called spam.

Derek Newman, Spam Arrest's attorney, said the decision opens the door for many other anti-spam software companies to incorporate the word "spam" into their trademarked product names.

"Spam Arrest fought this battle for the whole software industry," Newman said. "The case is limited to the e-mail usage of the word spam, which will not detract from the fame associated with Hormel's meat products trademark."

Hormel said it was disappointed, but officials wouldn't comment on what the decision means to the company.

"Although we understand and accept that the term 'spam' has taken on new meaning in recent years, it is important to remember that we created the Spam brand more than 70 years ago and have invested significantly to build, support and protect the brand," Hormel spokeswoman Julie Craven said.

"We are reviewing all our options at this time, including an appeal."

The company previously said that Spam Arrest's name so closely resembles that of its lunch meat that the public might become confused, or might think that Hormel endorses Spam Arrest's products.

Back to Monty

Why is junk e-mail called spam? It goes back to a famed Monty Python comedy skit from years ago in which a man enters a restaurant and asks what they've got.

The waitress replies: "Well, there's egg and bacon; egg sausage and bacon; egg and spam; egg bacon and spam; egg bacon sausage and spam; spam bacon sausage and spam; spam egg spam spam bacon and spam; spam sausage spam spam bacon spam tomato and spam."

At various points during the skit, a group of Vikings sings a spam song, loudly and obtrusively.

Spam, in other words, is something you don't want that there's too much of -- exactly like junk e-mail. Early Internet users named unwanted e-mail "spam."

Which is not to say Hormel has no sense of humor about Monty Python. Hormel has sponsored the musical "Spamalot" and shows Monty Python videos at its Spam Museum in Austin.

And its website says it doesn't object to the slang use of "spam" (lowercase) to describe unsolicited e-mail.

But Hormel does object to the use of Spam as a trademark, and it has sought court injunctions against that use.

Among the software companies it has moved against are "Postini Anti-Spam Engine" by Google's Postini business unit of Dallas: "My Spam Gone" by Arlington Web Services of Columbus, Ohio; "SPJAM" by NCsoft Corp. of South Korea; "Spamout" by Spamout LLC of Grafton, N.H.; "Spamaware" by Lavasoft AB of Sweden; "X-Spam" by MicroWorld Technologies Inc. of Farmington Hills, Mich., and "Spam Sentry" by EarthLink Inc. of Atlanta.

"If I represented those other companies, I would move to dismiss the cases based on the Spam Arrest ruling," Newman said. "And I would expect to be successful."

Steve Alexander • 612-673-4553

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