Kardashian Trademark Fight Tests Limits of Dynastic Goodwill

Kardashian Trademark Fight Tests Limits of Dynastic Goodwill

Previous generations didn’t greet future in-laws with legal challenges, but marrying into the most valuable name in reality television is a little more complicated than the wedding planning.

[caption id="attachment_33500" align="aligncenter" width="1024"] Has Rob Kardashian impaired the family business by offering Blac Chyna (right) the family name?[/caption]
If you’ve ever suspected that there’s a hard limit to the amount of Kardashian exposure the global economy can support, the family lawyers evidently agree with you.
That concern was a key factor in their recent protest against incoming Kardashian sister-in-law Blac Chyna’s application to trademark a business under her soon-to-be legal married name.
It’s basic supply and demand. While the number of people entitled by birth to the family name is fixed, brother Rob can still “create” new Kardashians through marriage.
That’s what’s happening with Blac Chyna, who’s best known otherwise as a model, music video actress and hip-hop girlfriend.
But evidently the lawyers say three natural Kardashian girls flooding Twitter with product endorsements is all the world can handle -- one more would “dilute the brand” the family has painstakingly built over the years.
In the marketplace, that’s a fair argument. Too many copycat colas, for example, crowd the original off store shelves and confuse shoppers looking for the real thing.
But this is explicitly a family business, so restricting use of the dynastic name to “authorized” members may backfire.
Trademarking yourself: the basics
Blac Chyna would have had a tricky time getting a Kardashian trademark even if the lawyers hadn’t challenged the claim.
She’s not a Kardashian yet and won’t be until she and Rob actually set a date and make the relationship legal.
In the meantime, she only started promoting herself as “Angela Kardashian” a few days ago, so her application shows intent to use the trademark at best.
To her fans, she’s probably always going to be “Blac Chyna.” That’s the name on all of her social media accounts. It’s why she’s famous.
But with the holders of the existing Kardashian marks protesting, she’ll have even more trouble making her case to the regulators that the new mark belongs to her and doesn’t infringe anyone else’s rights.
Names are especially tricky. Half-sister Kylie Jenner got her application to trademark “Kylie” slapped down a few months ago because pop singer Kylie Minogue -- in show business nearly two decades before Jenner was born -- protested that she already owned the master mark on that name for entertainment.
Minogue simply got famous first. Even if her lawyers hadn’t already filed the paperwork to register, she could have protested because Jenner claiming exclusive rights to the name would infringe on her existing publicity.
Upstarts who shared a name with a celebrity traditionally adopted a glamourous-sounding but artificial stage name to eliminate conflict and confusion.
On the other hand, deliberately changing your name to associate yourself with people who are already more famous than yourself is asking for trouble, especially if the famous people have taken legal measures to protect their unique identities.
Anybody could have been named “Kylie” and had some claim to that name. But “Kardashian” is close to unique in the United States, so it’s hard for someone to argue that adopting the name isn’t a grab for reflected celebrity.
Taking the name through marriage is allowed unless you’re looking back toward the aristocratic practice of cutting common spouses out of the dynastic name and inheritance.
If that’s what it takes to marry into the Kardashians, it had better be spelled out in the prenuptial paperwork -- which, by the way, I doubt Blac Chyna has signed yet.
Family property is family property, even when it’s intellectual property. Right now the Kardashian name is a key component of their business, so access to it needs to be clearly defined.
Soothing the sting
Matriarch Kris Jenner has already stepped up and told her daughter-in-law-to-be that the lawyers were simply acting to defend that business. It wasn’t personal.
Maybe that means Blac Chyna will get to use the Kardashian name in the media when she receives it in marriage. If marketing executives want to pay “Angela” to promote their products, they’re welcome to pay.
Rumor has it Jenner gets a piece of all Kardashian sponsor fees in any event, so adding another face to the family org chart only feathers her nest a little more lavishly.
But the lawyers also managed to insult Blac Chyna along the way, specifying that her claim to a piece of the family brand would cause the blood relatives to "suffer damage including irreparable injury to their reputation and goodwill.”
That’s more than simply widening the split of Twitter endorsements from three accounts to four and adjusting the revenue accordingly. Evidently the lawyers think Blac Chyna would embarrass the family and actively impair their public image.
Will she drag their reputation into the mud? Lower the quality of the conversation around the Kardashians?
It’s a little hard to believe there’s no personal disparagement going on there before she’s even formally joined the family.
The lawyers knew they were talking about the woman Rob wants to be his wife. She’s already going to be the mother of his child, presumably the only heir in the next generation to carry on the Kardashian name at all.
Automatically fighting all challenges to the family intellectual property makes tactical sense, but alienating someone who’s going to have access to family secrets -- not to mention marital property, custody and child support -- is not strategically smart.
Blac Chyna is already associated with the family as much as Kanye West or any of the other love interests in their orbit. Her public image plays into theirs, whatever last name she’s using.
Letting her use the family name isn’t exactly going to hand her any keys to the store she doesn’t already have. Advertisers who respond to the name “Kardashian” already know who she is. They’ll either hand her contracts or not.
But a divorce or other high-profile estrangement will be expensive. If she wants a trademark because the other girls do, maybe the lawyers should let her have it.
After all, none of the other girls are named Angela Kardashian, so it’s not like she wants to call herself Kim or Khloe or Kourtney. And if there are any other Angela Kardashians out there, locking down the name makes sure the income remains in the immediate family.
Let’s see if Kris Jenner blinks. If not, she’d better hope Blac Chyna doesn’t bear a grudge when the prenuptial contract is ready to sign.

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