Hanisya Massey, owner of Higher Ground Enterprises in Covina, Calif., first heard from a lawyer for Higher Ground Productions early this summer.
Barack and Michelle Obama wanted to trademark their company’s name, but the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office had deemed it too similar to the mark Massey registered in 2017 for her computer training company. Higher Ground Productions was looking to strike a deal.
So began the dispute, which escalated from an initial note sent by the Obamas’ lawyer to requests by Massey for on-screen roles in their productions and, now, an attempt by the former president and first lady’s company to have Massey’s trademark wiped off the books.
The case isn’t expected to slow the Obamas’ post-presidency plans to break into the entertainment business — or to prevent them from using the name. The first film from their Netflix deal, “American Factory,” has already been released on the streaming site, and more content is in the works.
The Obamas landed on Higher Ground, inspired by the Stevie Wonder song of the same name. But Massey got the name first.
Higher Ground Enterprises started training people to use computers more than 10 years ago, Massey said. Her inspiration for the name stems from her clients, who she said wanted to be on a “higher playing field.” Now, Massey said, her company’s services include consulting, photography, videography, e-books and other learning materials. It was her father who encouraged her to trademark Higher Ground Enterprises, telling Massey, “you just never know.”
The Obamas’ Higher Ground Productions has successfully found resolutions with other similar trademark holders, said the company’s trademark lawyer, Jim Vana. But with Massey’s company, the Obamas have hit a snag.
Massey and her lawyer, Larry Zerner, came back with a proposal to sell the mark — in exchange for what Vana called “significant demands,” including appearances in the Obamas’ TV and film productions. “It was not, ‘I want to star in a movie,’ ” Zerner said. “It was like, ‘Can I get a bit part in something?’ ”
A few weeks ago Higher Ground Productions filed a petition to cancel Massey’s trademark. Rebecca Tushnet, a Harvard Law School professor and an expert in intellectual property law, said that the goal of this move would be to determine whether Massey is actively using the trademark to conduct business. The Obamas’ filing starts a fact-intensive inquiry that could take years to sort out.
This isn’t a political fight for Massey, who said she voted for Obama for president both times. “They were the ones who started this. I’m willing to go as far and long as it takes,” she added. “The question is, can they?”