A trademark too far

Our view: Denise Whiting's effort to legally control commercial use of a word all Baltimoreans own betrays the civic trust

December 10, 2010

For the purposes of this editorial, we will refrain from using a three-letter expression in common parlance among Baltimoreans, particularly those of the waitressing profession, that starts with an "H," ends in an "N" and has an "uh" in the middle. We apologize for any inconvenience this may cause to readers, but we would not want Café You-Know-What owner Denise Whiting to demand we turn over the entire press run of the newspaper, as she did with some unfortunate soul who was selling H-word paraphernalia at the airport a few years ago. We do, after all, still hope to make money from printing and selling papers, and we'd hate to run afoul of the trademark Ms. Whiting apparently so jealously guards.

It was just a year ago that Baltimore residents leapt to Ms. Whiting's defense once the city made an absurd demand that she pay a hefty fee to keep aloft the giant pink flamingo she had attached to the fire escape above her restaurant. Even the mayor, then Sheila Dixon, stepped in to ensure that the big, pink bird that served as a chicken-wire-and-bedsheet mascot for Hampden (and, not incidentally, a giant advertisement for Ms. Whiting's restaurant) would go back up. Ms. Whiting referred to it at the time as "the people's flamingo."

Perhaps she hadn't gotten around to trademarking that, too.

Ms. Whiting justifies her steps to take legal control of the word-that-must-not-be-spoken by claiming that she, more than anyone, has "celebrated it and created it."

She told The Sun's Jill Rosen, "When I started doing Café [CENSORED] in 1992, 18 and a half years ago, where was the city then? Where was Hampden? So you could say I took a little word, celebrated it, and created change. Big change."

Indeed, would it be hyperbole to note that just eight years after Café H-N opened, Baltimore's murder rate finally dropped below 300 for the year? That less than a decade after that, a long population decline finally ended? That enrollment and test scores in the schools are finally up? Who can deny that the clever marketing of a local business led surely to all those things? And who, then, could fault Ms. Whiting for the legal usurpation of a beloved local cultural trope?

Certainly we should be grateful that Ms. Whiting has pledged to use her powers benevolently. For example, she merely insisted on creative control over a series of advertisements the Maryland Transit Administration created to promote its new Charm Card that featured images of bespectacled, beehived women (known commonly by a word that is an abbreviation of "honey") and the phrase, "Get yours …" — well, you can fill in the rest. And when a local nonprofit wanted to hold a fundraiser using the H** theme, she only charged $25!

Still, Ms. Whiting didn't trademark the word for nothing, and she admits to dreaming about cashing in, should the right opportunity arise — like maybe she could get the city to build a parking lot in Hampden in exchange for its use in a tourism campaign, much as she demanded (and got) promotional signs for Hampden on the JFX as part of the city's apology for the flamingo incident of 2009.

What Ms. Whiting seems not to understand is that the city was on her side in the case of the big pink bird, and Baltimoreans flock to rhymes-with-bun-Fest, not because of something she created but because they saw her as celebrating and nurturing something that is part of the collective, community psyche — and which John Waters, incidentally, deserves the most credit for, if any credit is to be awarded (which he probably would not want). Ms. Whiting may have legal claim to the word, and she may be able to bully people into kissing her beehive before they can use it. But if she thinks she owns it, we have one thing to say:

Get real, hon.

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