Church marketing and branding has become sufficiently commercial that occasionally a church will try to copyright or trademark its name. Even if the name is extra-scriptural (regardless of whether the scriptures are Biblical, Taoist, or Sanskrit), most such words are so generic no copyright or trademark can be obtained. My favorite example of how such a simple principle can go awry is my favorite spice: “Bon Caca.” The name is part of a registered trade mark proving that the United States trade mark registrars do not speak “Cajun.”
In the The Universal Church, Inc. v Toellner, Slip Op. (2nd Cir. 2018), the United States Court of Appeals for the 2nd Circuit affirmed a federal trial court summary judgment by Summary Order. The Plaintiff sued a para-church organization called “Universal Life Church” for copyright and trademark infringement as well as cybersquatting. Cybersquating is prohibited by statute. 15 USC §1125. The Plaintiff’s name, “Universal Church” was held to be a generic term. In addition to legal authorities, the Court relied on the Oxford English Dictionary. The Court also held that Plaintiff, an actual Pentecostal Church (the opinion did not specify whether this was a doctrinal statement or if there was a denominational affiliation), was not facing unfair competition because the Defendant para-church organization only provided free online ordination and did not conduct church services anywhere except for occasional mass weddings. The Plaintiff had been defending its copyright and trademark by issuing “cease and desist” letters to alleged infringers but the Court held that did not matter. The Plaintiff claimed 30,000 members and 800,000 television viewers but the Court held that did not prove a claim that the “relevant public” associated the name with the Plaintiff. Both the Plaintiff and the Defendant provided reports from “expert witnesses” regarding usage of the phrase “universal church” in the history of Christendom. One must wonder if the word “catholic” was in either report.
There is nothing more dangerous in civil commercial litigation than a litigant that cannot afford to pay a judgment but can afford a lawyer. The Plaintiff church probably selected the Defendant to sue based on the faulty assumption that in a battle of offering plates, the Plaintiff’s would be larger to a crushing extent. The better approach, rather than expensive unsuccessful litigation, might have been to spend the same money buying the Defendant, especially its website.