Shades of you-know-who

Everyone knows by now (at least, if they’ve read Deb Stoller’s first knitting book) that the phrase “stitch and bitch” has been used to describe gatherings of crafters for decades.

What you didn’t all realize is that someone figured out the potentially lucrative side of that phrase long before Deb did.

Sew Fast/Sew Easy, Inc., a New York company, got a US trademark registration for STITCH & BITCH CAFE three years ago, based on claimed use since 1998 in association with “sewing instruction and manuals distributed in connection therewith” and “providing on-line chat rooms for the transmission of messages among computer users concerning sewing via a global computer network.” You can look it up yourself using the US Patent and Trademark Office website; follow the links for trademark searching. The application itself was filed in 2000, which was a couple of years before the resurgence in popularity in the term “stitch and bitch.” (The working title of Deb Stoller’s first book circa 2002 was actually something else. If you do the search, you’ll see a number of trademark applications in Stoller’s name; they haven’t actually be registered yet, they’re still in the application stage.)

SFSE has started flexing its legal muscle. Check out the MetaFilter commentary here.

Here’s the page on the Sew Fast Sew Easy website that perhaps comprises the “online forum.” Actually, it’s a guestbook. Check frequently, because apparently they’ve been deleting posts. Note that this page includes the notation “Stitch and Bitch®” etc., etc. That’s not technically correct, because in fact the US trademark registration includes the word “cafe.” If they have a registration for “Stitch and Bitch” without any extra words or letters, it must be in another country, because I couldn’t find it.

People, get all riled up if you want, but it’s not copyright, okay? Yes, it’s very rare to have an enforceable copyright in a mere title. But this is a trademark issue. You know, brand names, slogans, catch phrases, title-like-things. (Yes, this touches on one of my pet peeves, but at least everyone seems to be spelling “copyright” properly.) Rights to trademarks can actually be parceled out according to the wares and services that are offered by the trademark user. And just because a phrase seems to be common doesn’t mean that it can’t be made the subject of a legitimate trademark.

Do SFSE’s rights extend to the organization of informal groups of knitters that physically gather in various locations to stitch and bitch? Can they claim infringement through the use of a confusingly similar “Stitch and Bitch” when their registered trademark was actually granted for “Stitch & Bitch Cafe”? Did they actually legally “use” their trademark since 1998? All of those are legal questions, and they’re US legal questions in this context, so beyond my proper ken (not that I’d be putting legal opinions up here anyway). Is SFSE doing itself a favour by engaging in this campaign? From the popular opinion, doesn’t sound like it.

Edit 1: a question. If the scenario had played out the other way, and Stoller was attempting to enforce her own trademark rights against a later comer (someone selling something marked “Stitch ‘n Bitch,” not a casual group calling itself a stitch and bitch group), would she incur the same level of rancour? Or, if SFSE in this case had targeted an actual business that was clearly intended to be an ongoing, profitable concern for its owners–say, a knitting store–that had adopted the name “Stitch and Bitch,” would the reaction have been this violent?

Edit 2: another question. Poking around the site I see that the bio for Elissa K (listed registrant of the SFSE domain name) states that “A former instructor at Parsons School of Design, she has developed a new upbeat method of teaching sewing and design. Her method is patented and comes with a workbook that is written to accompany the classes at Sew Fast Sew Easy.” Of course certain words jump out at me, so I bit. But a USPTO search of patents and published applications for “Meyrich” (her last name) turns up nada. (Even if she didn’t own the patent, if she was an inventor her name should turn up in a search. Assuming that Meyrich isn’t a name she assumed later, and assuming that her patent issue after 1976.) Seems likely if there was a patent application, it would have been filed in the US rather than anywhere else; if it had been, it might have been filed back in the day when US patent applications weren’t published until they were granted. If anyone has her book, can they let me know if there’s a reference to a patent or application at all? I’m just curious.

Edit 3: a correction (not by me). SFSE has changed the registered trademark notice on their guestbook page to indicate that the registered trademark rights comprise the word “cafe.”

Edit 4: a further correction. And later on, same day (this is May 11), it’s back to reading “Stitch and Bitch®” which makes me think that the last time they deleted guestbook comments, they uploaded a previous version of the page.

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19 Responses to Shades of you-know-who

  1. j. says:

    Because of an excess of spam, I’ve closed comments on this post. If you have a comment to leave please find another, more recent post in the stitch v bitch category and leave your comment there.

  2. Denise says:

    I’ve just heard about this debate, and had a quick look at the SFSE site – I’m bemused by their assertion that “No other usage of Stitch & Bitch ever occurred before the first Friday evening gatherings at Sew Fast Sew Easy in it’s first location 147 West 57th Street …”

    A friend of mine is a long time SCA (Society for Creative Anachronisim) member – you know, chain mail, swords, ladies in long dresses. He was confused when I said I was going to a Stitch and Bitch group, because he thought I meant sewing medieval clothes, and didn’t know about the knitting use of the phrase… he said the SCA has been using the term ‘Stitch and Bitch’ for DECADES.

  3. Johanna says:

    I think everyone is getting pissed over this SFSE thing for nothing. I have designed stuff and would definitely defend it if it was trademarked.

    People are pissed because rumors are going around that SFSE is bullying them. On the contrary, I have only seen ridiculous and petty comments from the knitting community on this issue following rumor after rumor. As a knitter, I can honestly say that our team is being a little petty.

    Being a NYer, I can honestly say business is business in the big apple.

  4. kristi says:

    Unfortunetly, online patents are not compleate, they are compleatly backlogged as they switch to an online archvie format. Someone put a patent out for the wheel to prove a point recently. What a mess.

    Response–the wheel patent has nothing to do with pre-1976 US patents not being text-searchable online. All US patents are available online in some manner or other; only, pre-76, they are searchable by class and patent number only, which makes searching for a single patent on a method of teaching sewing (if that’s what it is) quite a pain, but still possible. However, those patents and patent applications that are published online are usually complete documents. Full file histories of patent applications are not usually available online, but have to be ordered from their respective patent offices.

    The wheel patent was an Australian patent lawyer’s attempt to demonstrate the ridiculousness of the relatively new Australian “innovation patent” system (for a news blurb, read this). The innovation patent was intended as a way for claimants to inexpensively get a patent; however, inexpensive also means less review at the government level. Rest assured, though, that an Australian innovation patent has to undergo further scrutiny–examination and certification, like a “real” patent but not as stringent–before the patentee can actually sue on it: see this page for further information.

    This type of innovation patent system does not exist in the US, so there is little risk of anyone getting a US patent on a wheel with no new, innovative improvements; and if they did, I’d venture to say that the problem does not arise from public online searching difficulties, but on the quality of examination internally at the USPTO.

    By the way, an online search of Australia’s innovation patent database shows that the “wheel” innovation patent was revoked.

  5. jennifer says:

    Karen is outing herself as the least informed person about this situation and trademark law….SFSE has no legal standing (don’t own the mark, and are not most closely associated with it). Once they start consulting a lawyer, he’ll either explain that to them, or fleece them trying while they go out of business from bad publicity.

  6. Karen says:

    I also heard that Debbie Stoller and her team were watching this event very closely and are planning their own legal attaches.

  7. Karen says:

    …continued someone mentioned that they were not called this before. My grandmother verified this. This kind of talk was not even said in her day. Thank gosh we do not live in their day sometimes. I do not know what to think except it is between two people – but it makes interesting reading
    - Wednesday, May 11, 2005 at 21:54:09 (EDT)
    I have been following this story very closely. ok. So I never read the snb book by debbie so I went to bnn to check it out. On page 9, she says that she created the first snb. I also checked with my grandmother who knits and she said they used to call it knit and perls. I would be curious to hear where debbie got this term from. I would also like to mention on metafilter
    - Wednesday, May 11, 2005 at 21:52:26 (EDT)

  8. Karen says:

    Debbie Stoller claims invention to stitch and bitchs in her first book. I think SFSE could have a case because it is definitely on their website for a long time.

  9. Kenna says:

    Ok, so going on the logic that a big company can attack a bunch of women who get together and knit, charge no dues, make no money or otherwise profit from having their own “stitch n bitch” does that mean if I trade mark sewing circles that I can go after all the grannies at the local churches who have sewing circles?? Hummmm think of the endless possiblities. No more quilting bee’s, no more sewing circles, no more stitch n bitches…’s all SO stupid!!

  10. Becky says:

    I did a little research of my own (and wrote in my blog further) into the words Big Mac. I stopped looking after I found eleven live registered trademarks to the words. Only five were owned by McDonalds. The others were owned by JC Penneys, a fishing lures company, so on. One was even (I think) a bean company that had trademarked “Big Mac” with quotation marks.

  11. j. says:

    … and if not, I will then have a collector’s item that is currently in rotation with the rest of the coffee mugs in the office. Unfortunately, I think it was printed back when CafePress’s quality was lower (I *think* I remember hearing that they improved some of their printing), because Purl got rather faded after her first trip through the dishwasher.

  12. Karen says:

    I do not understand all the fuss. I understand as a knitter that we are gathering and using it, but if Sew Fast Sew Evil owns it then they obviously have the right to enforce it.

  13. Shannon says:

    Oooh! that is even better…if by “better” you mean “worse”!

  14. j. says:

    Even better, in the current guestbook comments on SFSE someone referred to an attempt to trademark the peanut butter and jelly sandwich. That wasn’t a trademark issue, that was a patent application!

  15. Shannon says:

    Apologies for my mis-type over on MeFi — shouldn’t have written “copyright” in my one post, and I hate to grind your particular pet peeve-aggravating nerve with that! I can’t believe how quickly this has spread. They’d be better off doing damage control at this point, no?

  16. L.R. says:

    2 more things to consider: the name stitch n bitch was in use by deb stoller for many years before the book came out; the nyc snb was set up by her and the date on the yahoogroup clearly shows that it was started in feb 2000. also, except for that guestbook, everything else is branded “sew fast sew easy” –the books, web site, and classes. so why the sudden interest in the mark?

  17. j. says:

    Infringement of a registered trademark *can* encompass use of a confusingly similar, but not identical, mark. IRL, often what happens at that point in a trademark action is that the parties commission surveys to prove that the offending mark is (or isn’t) confusing. In Canada, some of the relevant factors are the channels of trade associated with each mark, the amount of overlap in wares or services, the degree of resemblance between the marks, and the inherent distinctiveness of the marks. (To make up a totally random example: “Coffee Beanz”, if it were a mark, would have less inherent distinctiveness than “Starbucks” for use in association with coffee.) In a case where an alleged infringing mark drops one word in a multi-word mark, it’s still possible for a court to find infringement–depends on the importance of that word.

    I don’t know enough about what happened and the facts of the case to be able to figure out if the trademark owner has a reasonable case (and you *know* I wouldn’t answer that question, anyway!)

  18. Steph says:

    So you ask a lot of questions but don’t give many answers. If the sewing trademarkers came to you with this case–would you say they’re justifed?

    Can I apply to trademark Stitch’n'Bitch? (just ‘cus).

  19. jodi says:

    Hm. I find the whole practice of trademarking common phrases baffling. But if you’re going to do it, surely you can’t then try to enforce your ownership of other, similar phrases without also registering them, and paying for it. A registered trademark doesn’t give you ownership of the individual words in the trademarked phrase when used in other phrases, does it?

    I hadn’t actually heard anything about this until I read your post but I just checked out the forum. . . jeez, those people are MAD!