I had just seen the film Little Miss Sunshine when my friend Annie suggested I name my start-up cupcake venture, Little Miss Cupcake. I liked it -- it had a cute ring to it. And given that my mother has been calling me Little Miss C (for Catherine, my full first name) since I was about 6, it seemed somehow to be a sign.
About 8 weeks ago, I received a message from a twitter friend. She wrote to tell me about a new cupcake shop opening in her neighborhood and wondered if I knew about it. "I have an idea of who it could be," I wrote back knowing of another baker whose store was to open soon. "What's the name?" I asked. A few hours later a new message popped up in my inbox, "Is it you?" my friend asked. Attached was a twitpic of a woman I had never seen before staring into the camera from the doorway of a storefront. Above her head, painted on the facade of the not-yet-opened cupcakery was a name that made my heart stop. Quite simply, it was too close to my brand name for comfort. (I refuse to dedicate even a millimeter of my blog to mention this store by name so I will just refer it to it as CopyCat Cupcakes. Get it? I go by the name Cat!).
I immediately hit google to see what I could learn about CopyCat. But wouldn't you know, on google.fr if you type in the real name of CopyCat Cupcakes you get about 1,000,000 returns, the first 14 pages of which are all about my company, Little Miss Cupcake and absolutely ZERO about her. Hmmm. I started ringing round to friends in the industry and about 10 minutes later, one of them sent me a copy of CopyCat’s request to the French trademark office to trademark the name (this info is publicly available on the web). Egads! What I then learned made my blood boil...in France, it is usually the first to file (her in February 2010) who is favored in trademark suits as opposed to the first to use (me since 2008).
I have an advertising background. I should have known to protect myself. Trademarking was something I was eventually going to get around to. But let's face it, the market here is very small and specialized. There are only a handful of us making cupcakes in Paris and because I am a fairly well-known brand, it didn't even cross my mind that someone would try to steal my name. I mean could you imagine if I tried to open a cupcake gear store and called it Mrs. Johnny Cupcakes? I bet I would get shot out of the cupcake canon for that one. And this is basically akin to what CopyCat Cupcakes has done.
I really wanted to give her the benefit of the doubt. Maybe the similarity of our names was an honest mistake. But seriously, if you are going to invest a few thousand euros to open a cupcake store, don't you think you'd do even the tiniest bit of research? If all she had done was google.fr "cupcake," Little Miss Cupcake comes up on the 1st page of results. I have subsequently learned that she has bought the rights to a domain name that is virtually an iteration of my own AND started a blog here on blogger with an URL that is almost identical to mine. I had to admit, what I chalked up to "coincidences" stopped there. The legal term here in France for what she is doing is called "parasitisme" and what a fitting name it is.
A few legal friends advised that I contact CopyCat to see if we could find an amicable solution. If all else fails, they said, I could file an opposition with the trademark office. I didn't want an ugly fight, so I sent CopyCat an informal letter as an opener. Would she consider changing her name? I would even reimburse her for the hefty fee of filing the trademark. I was hopeful – at that point, she hadn't opened her store yet and I couldn't imagine she had much invested in the name. But my letter went unanswered. And then, two weeks later, a note arrived from a big law firm on the tony Champs-Elysees. The lawyer started off by telling me that I couldn't claim a generic word like "cupcake" as my own (I never did) and that I certainly couldn't prevent others from making and selling cupcakes in France (Really? I thought I had exclusive rights to be the ONLY cupcake baker in France, hell, in the world!).
Furthermore, the lawyer went on to say that my claim of ownership to the name Little Miss Cupcake was ridiculous -- that I am not even a real business (Oh? I have the siret #/taxpayer ID to prove otherwise. Jeez maybe I should stop paying taxes on my biz revenues!) and that no one has ever heard of me (Hmm, I guess I just imagined that pile of press clippings from L'Express, Psychologies, Elle, Grazia, Huffington Post, New York Magazine, New York Times, etc. etc. etc. citing Little Miss Cupcake....all those requests from the TV stations to appear on shows -- never happened....all the fans on Facebook, my blogs, twitter -- I guess they are just figments of my imagination?... And the many, many requests I have received for business collaborations here in France and as far off as Germany and Japan -- I guess those were meant for another Little Miss Cupcake who happens to have the same email address as me?). The part that killed me though was her insistence that there is no similarity between our names -- my name consists of 3 words: "Little" "Miss" and "Cupcake." CopyCat's consists of 2 words, both of which happen to be in my name -- BUT that I was now warned that I should not use the name Little Miss Cupcake in any communications outside of my blogs. Come again?
The past few weeks have been a horror. I have had many sleepless nights on account of this matter and it seems to be going nowhere slowly. I have worked so hard to build my reputation; when I think of all the late nights and early mornings spent lovingly hand-crafting decorations to go on cupcakes, baking custom orders, all the time that I have sacrificed with my children and my husband to foster my business and promote the Little Miss Cupcake name, it breaks my heart. I'm going to do what I can to keep my name and to deter CopyCat from capitalizing on my hard work. Unfortunately though I don't think the legal precedence is on my side.
A note from Natalie at Bake and Destroy told me to try to stay positive -- that perhaps I should view this as an opportunity to reinvent myself. Easier said than done. Anyway the point of this post is to say first off to those of you who have followed this saga: I appreciate the kind words and support I have received from you all. For those of you with fledgling business like me, take the time and protect yourself from something like this. If you don't follow my blog and just happened across it, I want you to know: I do NOT have a store in Paris (yet!) and I am in no way affiliated with a like-named store in the 18th. Please don't be confused by our similar sounding names and patronize it under the impression that you are buying Little Miss Cupcake cupcakes. My cupcakes are currently only available via custom order from me directly.
The story continues here.....