The NYT’s silly trademark spat

By Felix Salmon
October 26, 2011
nastygram targeting HuffPo's new Parentlode blog.

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Here’s what I don’t get about the NYT’s silly nastygram targeting HuffPo’s new Parentlode blog. It ends like this:

If I have not received a response to these demands within three (3) business days of receipt of this letter, we will have no choice but to pursue all available legal remedies.

This, it seems, puts the NYT, and its legal office, in something of a bind. It’s extremely unlikely that they’re going to get a response to their demands within three (3) business days, or, frankly, ever. Which means that the NYT will have two choices. Either it does nothing — and implicitly admit that its nastygrams are all bark and no bite. Or else it launches a spectacularly pointless and expensive trademark-infringement lawsuit against a blog with a really stupid name, on the grounds that the stupid name (“Parentlode”) is designed “to create an association in the minds of readers” with the NYT’s old Motherlode blog.

Of course the Parentlode name is designed to create that association. As is the rather more germane fact that Parentlode is being written by Lisa Belkin, who founded Motherlode.

Blog names do, of course, have a tendency to follow their authors around. Adam Clark Estes makes a very good point:

Learning the digital ropes, building a devoted audience, tending your personal brand: these are all the sorts of things that journalists are supposed to be doing to adapt to the new news climate. It’s exactly what Andrew Sullivan, who had moved his Daily Dish brand from Time to The Atlantic to The Daily Beast, has done. So too Mickey Kaus who’s ported his Kausfiles moniker from Slate to Newsweek and now The Daily Caller. If Belkin made a mistake it was not initially insisting that she could take “Motherlode” with her if she ever left The Times, as the Freakonomics guys did when they moved their branded blog from The Times to their own site.

We’ve even done it here at Reuters: Matt Goldstein has a blog called Unstructured Finance, which is the same as the name of his old blog at Businessweek; I’m quite sure we’re not going to get sued by Bloomberg as a result.

The NYT lawsuit, then, is pure peevishness — and I don’t understand why that’s an attitude they’re interested in communicating to the world. What’s more, it’s a clear sign that the NYT is still very uncomfortable with helping to build personal brands. Here’s a bit more of the C&D:

Amazingly, Ms. Belkin explicitly draws attention to the connection to the NYTimes.com blog in her first posting today and encourages the false impression that the HuffPo blog is a continuation of the Motherlode blog, albeit with a new name.

False impression? I’d say that’s a true impression. If a blogger moves her blog from one publication to another, then it’s reasonable to consider the new blog a continuation of the old one. This blog, for instance, is very much a continuation of my old blog at Portfolio.com. It features a bunch of cross-posts from when I was at Portfolio, and Portfolio ran a bunch of cross-posts from here after I moved. Even as they hired Ryan Avent to continue to blog at my old home over there.

Obviously, the NYT and HuffPo aren’t nearly as collegial as Portfolio and Reuters were. But there’s a deeper difference: Portfolio was owned by Conde Nast, which is deeply invested in creating individual brands and turning its writers and bloggers into stars. Conde understands that if you want to keep and attract stars, you do that by treating them very well. The NYT, by contrast, seems to think that it’s a good idea to punish its erstwhile blog stars by threatening their new employer with lawsuits. It’s a strategy which can’t help but damage the NYT’s reputation as a great home for writers. Which is yet another reason why it’s so stupid.

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Comments
2 comments so far

How is this different from the NBC/Letterman spat 20 years ago, when Letterman had to give up rights to characters he’d created for his NBC show when he moved to CBS?
I’ll guess this is not a tough one for NYT to win.

Posted by RZ0 | Report as abusive

If the C&D combined with the fact that it’s a really stupid name add up to enough incentive for them to change it, then it will have been for the better, anyway.

Posted by dWj | Report as abusive
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