Saturday, May 29, 2010

Cease and Desist!!


A rather terrifying letter recently burst the bubble of good vibes that has surrounded our shop since we opened.

“This law firm acts as outside trademark counsel to Unilever Supply Chain, Inc., and its affiliates (“Unilever”),” the letter said. “Because POPSICLE® is Unilever’s registered trademark Unilever must request that you replace all of the references to ‘popsicle’ and ‘popsicles’…with proper generic terminology such as ‘ice pop(s).’ We ask that you please provide us with written confirmation of your compliance with the foregoing by Friday, May 7, 2010.”

Well, okay.

Here’s the story of POPSICLE®.

In 1905, eleven-year-old Frank Epperson fixed himself some powdered soda and water and left the container outside with the stirring stick still in it. That unusually cold night in San Francisco, the mixture froze, and the first-ever “Epsicle” was born. Eighteen years later, now in Alameda, Epperson started selling “The Frozen Drink on a Stick!” at Neptune Beach. He applied for a patent a year later and sold the rights to what he now called “Popsicles” another year later (1925), to the Joe Lowe Company in New York. Over time, they became so iconic that during World War II the Eighth Air Force Unit chose them as the symbol of American life. Over the last eighty-five years, the horse-drawn cart that sold POPSICLES® to schoolchildren in Nebraska (also carrying the first ice-cream man!) has morphed into a veritable fleet of trucks that cover the land selling water, high fructose corn syrup, gums, colorants and preservatives to people, young and old, all over the country.

In 1989, Good Humor, a subsidiary of Unilever, bought the rights to POPSICLE®.

Today, two billion POPSICLE® ice pops are sold annually.

The End.

Sort of.

In June 2008, Joel, David and I decided to see what ice pops made using local fruit in season might taste like, and, sort of by accident, subsequently began making on a regular basis what we called people’s popsicles. We got rubber stamps made with the name, and stamped our sticks with them. As time elapsed and the pops became a regular gig, we bought the domain name peoplespopsicle.com and got business cards made. Et cetera.

Shortly thereafter, we figured out that POPSICLE® was a trademarked term. So we switched gears: bought peoplespops.com and, when we formed as an LLC in 2009, did so under that name. But we’d been lazy about using the word “popsicle” on our blog. Can you blame us? I mean, at this point POPSICLE® is such a ubiquitous word that it rolls off the tongue more easily than “ice pop.” It’s like Kleenex®, or Xerox®—pervasive to the point of generic.

But it isn’t generic. And there’s the rub. Not only is Unilever the only party legally allowed to use the word POPSICLE® for anything, they are also legally obliged to defend any infringement on their trademark if they hope to keep it. As my friend Adam Prizio explained to me (his law practice, Law for Food, specializes in helping food producers and farmers): the law is concerned with the situation in which somebody might be confused into believing that People’s Pops are a Unilever product, and there are lots of reasons why Unilever wouldn’t want that. “It’s a problem,” Adam said, “because the term has entered into the vernacular but retains its status as a trademark. So an odd consequence of this situation is that I think you can buy things called ‘popsicle sticks’ but you can’t make ‘popsicles’ with them for commercial use.” Although the trademark has largely been genericized, it’s nevertheless still enforceable within the commercial sector in which it originated. And in fact it must be enforced, unless Unilever wants to risk losing the trademark, which for two billion reasons each year, they obviously don’t. The expense of taking us to court, if it came to that, is fully worth it to them.

To us, it isn’t. So we replaced every “popsicle” on our blog with “ice pop,” a task made easier by the fact that Unilever’s lawyers had FedExed us 17 pages of our blog with every infringement circled. We repainted the word “popsicle” on the back wall of our shop and cut the –icle off our rubber stamp.

Look at us, threatening the big boys! Don’t worry. We promise, whatever they’re called, our ice pops still taste better.


POSTMORTEM 06/01/10:

Wow, did this post get snapped up by the media.

Bloomberg
Grub Street
Gothamist
Village Voice























(New York Magazine)

And look what else we found flaunting Unilever's dictates!



5 comments:

Keith said...

people's pops is such a better name anyway. you go PP!

Food Notes said...

just for that, i promise never to buy a 'popsicle' ever again.

only ice pops from now on...

Talis said...

While I'm all for small business (especially NY-based), the fact is that Popsicle® is a trademarked term and Unilever HAS to defend it. Unilever is careful. Even on Unilever's own site, they are "Popsicle® brand ice pops". You'll never see the word Popsicle® on their sites without that ®, anywhere.

John Fletcher said...

Looks like you've got the big ice cream monster quaking in its boots; good on ya. Not only do Peoples Pops undoubtedly taste better I bet they don't also use GMO derived “ice structuring proteins”... Arctic Pout fish on a stick anyone?

Soapylove said...

Been there, got the letter, and even an official law suit. Had to change our "soapsicles" to "soapy pops." Sigh! But of course I understand the law and why it's in place, so I'm not as mad as I used to be. I hope you have found peace with your name as well, which is very cool!