On Oct. 24, after three years as the lead writer on the
wildly popular New York Times blog Motherlode, Lisa Belkin
launched a new blog at the Huffington Post. As she explained in
an introductory post, Belkin decided to call her new site
Parentlode. "For three years I have fielded reader emails about
how 'Motherlode' doesn't really fit in an era when fathers are
every bit the parent," she wrote. "It also doesn't fit a blog
that so regularly champions equality, and new paradigms, nor
one that is written by a writer who is exquisitely aware of the
power of words. For three years I have answered those emails by
saying that a brand is a brand, and the Times wasn't inclined
to change this one, but if I were choosing today I would choose
something more inclusive. Seems I AM choosing today. So welcome
The New York Times didn't much care for Belkin's choice. In
a Manhattan federal court complaint filed Friday, the Times
accused Belkin's new employers -- HuffPo and its parent, AOL --
of infringing the newspaper's Motherlode trademark.
"In drawing attention to the purported relationship between
the blogs and offering the Parentlode blog as a continuation of
NYTCo's Motherlode blog, Ms. Belkin clearly intended to create
an association in the minds of readers between the two
competing blogs and, further, her reference to the 'new name'
was a deliberate attempt to mislead readers into mistakenly
believing it was the same blog, albeit with a slightly
different name and location." The Times's complaint said
readers were indeed confused, pointing to a Twitter post that
said, "The NYT's Motherlode becomes the HuffPo's Parentlode."
After lawyers for the Times complained to the HuffPo's
editor, Ariana Huffington, the Parentlode site agreed not to
use the NYT's Motherlode as a tag and keyword for the new blog,
according to the complaint. But AOL's lawyer said the new
blog's name was not likely to cause confusion among consumers.
Interestingly, according to the complaint, AOL seems to have
anticipated squawking from the New York Times. HuffPo applied
for a trademark on Parentlode on Oct. 14; the New York Times
asked the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to register a
trademark on Motherlode on Oct. 24, the same day Belkin's new
HuffPo blog appeared.
The key to the case is likely to be whether readers are, in
fact, confused about the difference between the Times's ongoing
(though Belkin-less) Motherlode blog and Belkin's new
Parentlode blog. That's going to be a fascinating test of
whether readers identified the Times blog as a product of the
newspaper -- or whether they read the blog because of Belkin's
insights as lead writer. As the Times complaint asserts,
Huffington Post obviously wanted to capitalize on Belkin's
experience at Motherlode by launching the new blog with a
similar name. There's also no doubt that Motherlode is a brand.
Belkin said so herself in the introductory post the Times cited
in its complaint.
But Belkin also drew a line between her old gig and her new
one, branding Parentlode as her own vehicle. So the question
will be if Parentlode readers are sophisticated enough to
understand the distinction Belkin drew between herself and
Motherlode. It's sort of like when NBC threatened to sue David
Letterman if he used the title "Stupid Pet Tricks" when he
moved over to CBS, but in the new frontier of bloggers.
Journalists are told nowadays that we need to brand
ourselves. This case will test how much a brand belongs to
individual writers, and how much it belongs to the news
organization they write for.
(Reporting by Alison Frankel)
Follow Alison on Twitter: @AlisonFrankel
Follow us on Twitter: @ReutersLegal