Ten years ago the Chicago Tribune took on a couple of fleaspecks with predictable results. The Trib had just introduced the adolescent tab it called RedEye to Chicago's sagging newspaper market, and the market didn't open its arms. The resistance was critical ("flaunts its inconsequence," I wrote), competitive (The Sun-Times threw together a tab called Red Streak and shoved it out the door to sow confusion), economic (the 50 cents the Tribune originally asked turned out to be 50 cents more than anyone was willing to pay), and even legal. Or so it briefly seemed.
In Los Angeles there was grumbling from Red Eye Press, publisher of The Marijuana Grower's Guide; in Boston it came from a hip-hop magazine called Red Eye. The folks in Boston held talks with the Tribune that the magazine's founder called "extremely demoralizing and draining" and a Tribune spokesman said proceeded "fairly amiably." Boston's Red Eye agreed to terms that included a confidentiality clause so intimidating no one at the magazine would even acknowledge there'd been a settlement.
Red Eye Press, which had trademarked the Red Eye name in 1995 and used it to sell books around the world, gave the Trib just five days to withdraw its own trademark application, drop the name, and pay unspecified damages. The Trib did none of those things, and the Red Eye Press lawyer didn't lift a finger.
And so the Tribune won round one, effortlessly appropriating a brand name pipsqueaks already were using. Now it's round two, and the shoe's on the other foot. The Trib has the name, and it doesn't want anyone poaching it.
Last December the Occupy Chicago crowd rolled out the first issue of an occasional newspaper that they sassily call the Occupied Chicago Tribune. The name was chosen to make a point, which is that their "independent" paper would speak for the 99 percent who don't run America, rather than the one percent who do. Similar papers launched in other cities included the Occupied Wall Street Journal, the Occupied Washington Times, the Occupied Boston Globe, and the Occupied Oakland Tribune.
As they launched their paper, the Occupiers registered a couple of domain names: occupiedchicagotribune.org, an active site where news and opinion are continuously posted, and occupychicagotribune.org, an inactive site kept in the Occupiers' hip pocket.
Miles Kampf-Lassin, development director of In These Times magazine, is a founder and editor of Occupied Chicago Tribune. He tells me that after the first issue came out, the paper got a friendly call from a Tribune lawyer. Douglas Masters, an intellectual property specialist at the firm Loeb & Loeb, "requested politely we change the name of the paper. There was no threat, no cease-and-desist letter." Not sure how to respond, Occupied Chicago Tribune asked around. "We conferred with lawyers from the National Legal Guild and the People's Law Office," says Kampf-Lassin. "And we conferred with different Occupy publications around the country that have taken the names of popular newspapers." The Boston paper, feeling "soft pressure" from the Globe, decided to avoid a legal hassle by changing its name to Boston Occupier. The Occupied Oakland Tribune got a cease-and-desist letter from Oakland's Tribune and was fighting it. In Chicago, Kampf-Lassin and his colleagues decided to placate Masters. They eliminated the Gothic type in the Occupied Chicago Tribune masthead and added a disclaimer: "Media for the 99 percent. We're proud to have no affiliation whatsoever with the 1% Chicago Tribune or the Tribune Co."
But that didn't do it. In fact, Masters's conversational tone hardened. And on May 31 he acted. On behalf of Chicago Tribune Company, the corporate publisher of the Tribune, Masters filed a 15-page complaint with the World Intellectual Property Organization (WIPO), which is a United Nations agency based in Geneva, Switzerland. He maintained that Occupied Chicago Tribune had acquired its two domain names "in bad faith" and in order to "divert traffic" from Tribune websites. To avoid further confusion, he wanted both sites transferred to the Tribune.
The Tribune assured the public that it "encourages free speech in all forms and is not seeking to bar any organization from publishing news, information or opinion of its choice." Just not under the Tribune name. The company's credibility as a news organization was at stake, for it "depends in part on maintaining independence from unaffiliated organizations or groups with a political agenda."
Originally, Masters wanted the Occupiers to change the name of their newspaper. Then he dropped that demand and went after the domains. Michael Deutsch, a People's Law Office attorney who's helping Occupied Chicago Tribune deal with Masters's complaint, asked me if I'd ever heard of the WIPO. I hadn't. "I haven't either," said Deutsch. Now the Occupiers had just 20 days to file a response in Geneva that would impress an organization few of them had known existed and that eight times out of ten rules for the side complaining.