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Loads of Fishy Products: Christian Goods Infringing on TM's?

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By Tanya Roth, Esq. on January 04, 2010 9:12 AM

Does "thou shalt not steal" apply to trademark laws? Sometimes, even heaven needs marketing help, or that's what the producers of the ever growing varieties of Christian themed products seem to think. But in their bid to be a bit more relevant, producers of Christian goods may be violating the more secular side of the law.

According to MSNBC.com, retailers in the U.S. sell about $4.6 million worth of Christian themed merchandise a year. Recent entries into this market include a Facebookish t-shirt reading: Jesus Christ wants to be your friend. While that example itself may not cross the line, some brands are touchy about having hands laid on their trademarks. Take for instance, a popular shirt playing off the Abercrombie & Fitch brand reading, "Abreadcrumb & Fish" referring to the loaves and fishes miracle recorded in the New Testament. Or how about a hat or T playing off the Apple products with the "iPray" logo? Some trademark attorneys think this type of rendering is a bit too close for comfort.

While there is an exception in U.S. trademark law for brand or trademark parodies under the First Amendment, according to trademark attorney Michael Atkins, religious products like these wouldn't fall into that protected area. "You could take [for instance] Microsoft and change their logo around to make fun of Microsoft, and that would be legal," he said. "But I can't use the Microsoft logo to promote my Christian theme because there's no real connection there. That's illegal."

Some companies take action when they discover an unauthorized use of their brand or logo. For example, Abercrombie & Fitch attorney Reid Wilson says the "Abreadcrumb & Fish" design is a trademark infringement, and the clothing chain sends cease-and-desist letters anytime they discover such products. "We view that type of use of our trademark as an absolute infringement," he said. But other companies either don't know about the products, or are simply unwilling to raise a fuss, feeling like the issue might make them appear "anti-faith."

Who exactly is on the side of the angels here is up for discussion. One pastor feels that this is a good way to get a positive message across. According to Business Week, Baxter Chism, a United Methodist pastor in Dadeville, Alabama, says that children are bombarded by advertising from a young age. "I consider this a window of opportunity to proclaim Christ to people by using a topic they understand," he said.

Others are not so sure. Church marketing consultant Brad Abare terms the products "Jesus Junk." "We think it's just dumb. It's not a true reflection of creativity," said Abare, of the nonprofit Center for Church Communication in Los Angeles. Maybe they all should just ask, WWJD?

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