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Hormel Spam trademark case canned

Court rejects action against Spambuster

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The UK High Court has decided that the curse of email - spam - is of greater significance than the meaty heart of a nutritious packed lunch - Spam canned meat.

Deputy judge Richard Arnold QC was asked to invalidate the trademark "Spambuster", owned by email company Antilles Landscapes Investments, because it infringed the "Spam" trademark of Hormel Foods, which has produced its pink pork-shoulder-and-ham since 1937. He declined.

In fact, Judge Arnold blasted the Minnesota company for an "abuse of process", citing an obscure 1843 judgement that has come back into vogue. So an argument from the 1800s decides that a new technology in the 2000s is more important than a product from the 1900s. (Read the legal beagle stuff here.)

Basically, Hormel had already lost its trademark case back in February 2002 when the UK Patent Office decided that Antilles was allowed the "Spambuster" trademark. In fact, the registrar in charge of the decision made it quite clear what he thought: "The proposition that someone who encounters computer programming services under the mark Spambuster would think any less of the applicants' luncheon meat product or be discouraged from purchasing that product is more than a little fanciful." (Decision here in pdf.)

The registrar did, however, tell Antilles to pay Hormel £1,000. The High Court last week essentially told Hormel that it had already lost the argument and it wasn't going through the whole thing again.

The judge in the trademark case drew reference to the company's own website which had a small section on "Spam and the Internet". The company recognised - well it hardly had any choice - that spam had become a byword for unsolicited email. And it also wrote about the reason for it - Monty Python's legendary comedy sketch.

Hormel's own site reads: "Use of the term 'SPAM' was adopted as a result of the Monty Python skit in which a group of Vikings sang a chorus of 'SPAM, SPAM, SPAM...' in an increasing crescendo, drowing out other conversation. Hence, the analogy applied because UCE (unsolicited commercial email) was drowning out normal discourse on the Internet."

It hasn't passed Hormel by that the Monty Python sketch actually gave its product an iconic status. And so it reasonably went on: "We do not object to use of this slang term to describe UCE, although we do object to the use of our product image in association with that term."

Since Spambuster actually made no effort to connect its email software with the canned meat, it wasn't much of a surprise that the judge took their word for it and dismissed the complaint.

But it doesn't end there. Hormel has since jumped into bed with Monty Python to push its product. Eric Idle has written a play which combines parts of the Holy Grail film with some Python sketches and called it Spamalot. Hormel has no problem with this use of its trademark here and has even produced a "special edition" Spam can which it is selling outside the theatre. No, really - check out the official press release here.

And where will this special edition Spam be heartily consumed? Well, in Hawaii, whose citizens are reportedly the biggest consumers of Spam in the world. But then they've already had their own special edition in August 2003: "The Spam Hawaii Collector's Edition label will be available, in limited quantities at most Hawaiian grocery stores in late August. The can features Hawaiian-themed graphics, including hula dolls in grass skirts and a Spam musubi recipe and photo," read the press release at the time.

What's more, - and for those who would dare to mock Spam - we note that there is an annual "Spam Town USA Festival" in Hormel's hometown of Austin, Minnesota every July. It's been running since 1990. "A SPAM breakfast, SPAM kebab lunch, SPAMburgers, SPAM recipe contest and a special appearance by the SPAMettes singers are all on the calendar..." Indeed, Hormel had shipped six BILLION cans of spam up to July 2002.

If you fancy it, Monty Python's Spamalot is at the Chicago Schubert Theatre now until the 23 January, and then at the Shubert theatre in Broadway from 17 March. You can see the official website here.

Essential spam links

Monty Python Spam sketch
Spamalot website
Special edition spam
Legal Spam

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