Who Owns “CyberLaw”(TM)? Eric Menhart, a DC IP Attorney, Thinks He Does

By Eric Goldman

Every now and then, we see comical efforts to claim trademark rights in common Internet-related terms. You might recall that the word “Internet” itself was once a trademark (see a list of registrants dated 1994); the term “listserv” is also a trademark that the owner is trying to preserve (bonne chance!), and Hormel has protested the use of its “Spam” trademark in connection with email. Typically, the trademark owner is trying to prevent the genericism of its trademark. Those battles are almost always futile, but I can see why they are fought.

The latest would-be-funny-if-it-wasn’t-so-sad attempt to assert trademark rights in a common Internet term involves the term “Cyberlaw.” But unlike the anti-genericism efforts, Eric Menhart–a self-described “recognized leader” in intellectual property–is seeking to fence in the generic term “Cyberlaw” to convert it into his own property. He has filed a federal trademark application (application 77341910) in the term “CyberLaw” for the following services:

Legal document preparation and research services for attorneys; Legal research; Legal services; Legal services, namely, preparation of applications for trademark registration; Consulting and legal services in the field of privacy and security laws, regulations, and requirements; Expert witness services in legal matters in the field of intellectual property and information technology; Providing a website that features information on the development of international law, regulations, legal policies, and legal practices in a manner that promotes global governance by all types of organizations; Reviewing standards and practices to assure compliance with intellectual property and information technology laws and regulations; Attorney services; Litigation services; Legal services, namely, trademark maintenance services; Copyright management; Copyright management consultation; Registration of domain names for identification of users on a global computer network; Arbitration; Arbitration services; Consultation in the field of data theft and identity theft; Intellectual property consultation; Intellectual property watch services; Licensing of advertising slogans and cartoon characters; Licensing of computer software; Licensing of intellectual property; Litigation consultancy; Mediation; Patent licensing; Preparing and filing incorporation papers; Providing information relating to legal affairs

He claims a priority date of Feb. 22, 2007. Mysteriously, his website displays the circle-R next to the term “CyberLaw” even though it’s only a pending application (the application was just filed Dec. 1, 2007).

Fortunately, I’m 100% confident that the TM Office will reject this application because the term “Cyberlaw” has become a generic description for the law of the Internet and related fields–see the Wikipedia entry on the topic. In fact, the term “Cyberlaw” has been around over 15 years. I did a search in Westlaw’s News Database and the earliest reference I found was a Macweek article discussing Jonathan Rosenoer’s AOL “Cyberlaw” column–from 1992. I’m reasonably confident we could find earlier references. For example, I found a 1993 National Law Journal article (“A Shingle in Cyberspace: Lawyers Online Find Clients–and Some Risks” by Rosalind Resnick) that discusses the “burgeoning field of cyberlaw, those legal issues confronting the online world.”

Unfortunately, the improbability of this trademark hasn’t stopped Menhart from asserting his perceived rights against third parties. The EFF writes about one such demand against Michael Grossman, a Chicago attorney who runs a blog entitled “CyberBlawg.” I’m wondering how many other people have been the unlucky recipient of a demand letter from Menhart asserting similar claims over “CyberLaw.” Perhaps those demands will stop once the TM application gets bounced by the TM Office, but the harm done in the interim could be substantial.

One final observation (and I apologize in advance for any snarkiness here, but I know I’m saying what most of us are thinking). It’s impossible to ignore that the trademark applicant is a lawyer claiming expertise in Cyberlaw. What kind of Cyberlawyer doesn’t know that the term “Cyberlaw” isn’t trademarkable for Cyberlaw services, *especially* not by one who claims a priority date of 2007?

Coverage from around the web:

* Boing Boing

* Slashdot

* Techdirt

* Dvorak

* Las Vegas Trademark Attorney (with a careful analysis of precedent trademark applications)

* Groklaw

* Freedom to Differ

* Lex Ferenda (finding a Cyberlaw reference as early as 1987)

* Likelihood of Confusion

* Your Name is My Business

* NameWire

* Life on the Wicked Stage

* Joho

UPDATE: The Baltimore Sun ran an interesting feature on Eric Menhart in 2004. The article notes some critics said that Menhart’s “enterprising nature has led him into another pursuit that some people describe in harsh terms — like ‘extortion’ or ‘blackmail.'”

UPDATE 2: Mr. Menhart has blogged a response to EFF that reinforces that he really doesn’t get it. Two unavoidable facts of life for him:

1) The PTO will bounce his TM application

2) If he ever attempts to enforce his purported trademark rights in “CyberLaw” again, he will be met by a buzzsaw of opposition from some very determined folks.

In light of these facts, most savvy lawyers would realize that the absolutely wrong approach is to dig in his/her heels.