July 04, 2005


According to this article in tomorrow's New York Times, Leo Stoller, a Chicago businessman, claims to own all uses of the word "stealth" and has made a practice of sending cease-and-desist letters to anyone else who uses the word. In many such cases, the recepient gives in rather than spend the thousands of dollars that litigation would cost. In some cases, the recipients of his letters have paid him thousands of dollars to avoid the threatened lawsuit.

Mr. Stoller's company Rentamark does own the trademark stealth for some products, and in those markets he is entitled to enforce the trademark. Part of the problem is that he thinks that he owns stealth in all markets. That is false. The only circumstance in which a trademark becomes universal is when it is a so-called famous mark, one that has become so widely known and so closely associated with a particular company that anyone encountering it would naturally assume that the product was made by that company, even if there is little likelihood of the products being confused.. The idea underlying this is that the use of a famous mark by someone else dilutes the association between the mark and its owner. This situation arises most easily with artificial trademarks like Xerox and Reebok. When a trademark is an ordinary word, it must not only be very well known but will usually be a trademark used on a wide range of products. An example would be Sears.

Mr. Stoller's claim to universal ownership of stealth is wrong for two reasons. First, it isn't a famous mark because it isn't well enough known. I, for one, have never heard of stealth crossbows, pool cues, insurance consultations, or air conditioners. Stealth is no Coca-Cola. The second reason is that the trademark stealth is held by numerous others for a variety of other products. Indeed, the article reports, Timex won a lawsuit against Mr. Stoller for infringing its trademark on stealth watches.

Ignorance of trademark law and over-agressive defence of trademarks are common, but this guy really takes the cake because he thinks that he owns not the word stealth but the sequence of letters s-t-e-a-l-t-h. Really. He sent a cease-and-desist letter to the InterActivist Network demanding that they take down their website http://stealthisemail.com/. Stealth is email doesn't make an awful lot of sense, and even if it did, the phrase is not the name of a product of a type for which Mr. Stoller owns the trademark. The intended name, which does make sense, is: Steal this email, a nod to Abbie Hoffman's Steal This Book.

For our younger readers, Steal This Book was a Yippie classic, written by a major figure of the 1960s counterculture. Abbie Hoffman was, among other things, one of the Chicago Seven, radicals who were charged with conspiring to incite a riot at the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago. At the end of a widely followed circus of a trial they were convicted but the convictions were overturned on appeal. Anyone who was a teenager or older in the US in 1968 would get the reference. Mr. Stoller was 22.

steal  th is not a word at all, and even if it were, it wouldn't be the same word as stealth because it isn't pronounced the same. The <th> at the end of stealth is the voiceless interdental fricative [θ], whereas the <th> at the beginning of this is the voiced interdental fricative [ð]. The nuclei are also different. steal  th... has a long, tense, diphthongized high vowel [i], whereas stealth has a short, lax, mid-vowel [ɛ].

Posted by Bill Poser at July 4, 2005 02:08 AM