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Oprah Lawsuit Over 'Own Your Power' Revived by Appeals Court

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By Aditi Mukherji, JD on June 03, 2013 8:31 AM

A revived Oprah lawsuit will make the media mogul defend her use of the phrase "Own Your Power" in her magazine and on her website, a federal appeals court has ruled.

The 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned a lower court ruling and revived claims brought by the owner of a motivational and self-help business who claims she owns a trademark on the phrase.

The court is worried the classic "conquer all" Oprah effect is a legal "uh-oh," not an "aha!" moment.

Who Owns the Phrase?

Oprah and her company Harpo Inc. have repeatedly used the phrase "Own Your Power," including on a website, magazine cover, and for promotional events, the court said.

Trademark law seeks to protect branding, or the association of a product with a specific company. Using another's valid trademark to sell your own product dilutes the mark's worth. Trademark law also tries to prevent confusion.

Last year, a New York district court judge dismissed the Oprah lawsuit, reports Reuters. The lower court didn't think anyone would get confused by seeing "Own Your Power" on Oprah's products and think they were created by the plaintiffs, Simone Kelly-Brown and Own Your Power Communications Inc.

But the appeals court disagreed. Oprah's continuous use of the phrase could become "symbolic shorthand" for her products and message as a whole, the court said.

That's a problem if Kelly-Brown had a validly registered trademark over the phrase. If so, the court could find that Oprah should've known about it from doing a standard trademark search.

The Court's Concern

Though Oprah isn't off the trademark hook, she won't have to face allegations about logos used on the magazine or at the events, reports Reuters.

A publisher can use a trademarked term to describe its content, such as on a magazine cover or in a headline, concurring Circuit Judge Robert Sack clarified.

But you can't approriate someone's trademark to build your own brand.

In this case, Sack wrote, it was Oprah's repeated use of the phrase in an attempt to build an association with consumers that concerned the court.

The case has been an uphill battle for the plaintiffs, so Kelly-Brown and Own Your Power Communications Inc. are quite "ecstatic" about the opinion, reports Reuters.

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