Who owns a column name?

6a00d8341c639653ef017d3bfefa27970cby Mark Sableman, ABM’s Information Policy Counsel

A recent dispute between The New York Times and the Huffington Post raised the intriguing issue of who owns the name of a blogger’s column—the blogger, or his or her original publisher?

Lisa Belkin edited the Times’s parenting blog, then titled “Motherlode.” She moved to Huffington Post, where the blog was rechristened “Parentlode.” That change wasn’t enough for the Times, which sued on trademark and unfair competition theories.

After a little huffing and puffing about editorial freedom and the lack of any credible consumer confusion, Arianna Huffington waved a white flag (stylish, we are sure) and announced a contest to rename the Belkin blog once more.

The underlying issue is an intriguing one. Absent an agreement, who owns the name of a column or blog? Under standard law, the issue becomes one of consumer understanding—whether consumers understand the name to identify the publisher or the writer. The Times contended that the column developed loyalty because of its association with the Times, and it took that Times aura with it when Ms. Belkin went to HuffPo. (And the Times saw little distinction between Motherlode and its near-synonym Parentlode.) Ms. Belkin claimed that her readers were too intelligent to be “thinking you are somehow reading the New York Times when you are here at the Huffington Post.”

HuffPo’s decision to change the name rather than fight tells you that Times had at least a prima facie case. In these days in which reporters, columnists and bloggers can easily move a few pixels away to a competitor, publishers would be well advised to protect their interests by contract. For any writer who you promote, who may attract a loyal following, consider non-compete agreements, and explicit written policies or contracts covering even such details as who owns the column name.

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