Welcome to the Neighborhood
I’m working today in our firm’s new office space in Cincinnati’s Over the Rhine neighborhood. It’s on Main Street, near Liberty. We’re calling it “Graydon on Main” which is accurate if not terribly clever. In any event, on my way to work, I stopped for some coffee at Shadeau Breads. I introduced myself to the manager and told him about our new space. He pointed across the street and suggested there might be a legal fight brewing. What he was pointing to was this:
From what I can surmise, The Tax Place on Main, a local small business, is none too pleased with the presence of an H&R Block office directly across the street. Hence, the sign.
I imagine H&R Block is not happy with the sign, but it remains in place. There are several possible reasons for this. First, it’s tax season, which means no one at H&R Block has time to look out the window. Second, it’s possible H&R Block is working on a sign that says something along the lines of “I’m rubber and you’re glue . . . ” We’ll wait and see if that happens. Third, H&R Block may have concluded that there isn’t much of a legal claim here.
If the explanation is #3, that’s probably wise. While H&R Bock likely has trademark protection for its name, the Tax Place’s use of it in the sign would probably be deemed a “nominative use.” Nominative use just means another person is using the mark to refer to the company. You actually see this a lot, albeit in less hostile circumstances. Chevy, for instance, may say in an ad that the Malibu costs less than a Toyota Camry. It’s okay to use the competitor’s mark to make a comparison. Arguably, that is what the Tax Place is doing. The implied comparison here, I suppose is “H&R Block Sucks, but we don’t.”
And that raises another potential claim — business disparagement. This is essentially a defamation claim. But it’s likely H&R Block wouldn’t win this one either. Whether one “sucks” is a matter of opinion. And it really can’t be proven false. It’s not like a more factual charge — for instance if the Tax Place said “H&R Block sucks because it gives false tax advice.” That statement can be proven true — either H&R Block does or doesn’t give false tax advice. But the more generic “sucks” is too vague.
So I don’t expect to see any legal action over the sign. Which means, I suspect it will remain in place. And we’ll try to stay on the good side of all our new neighbors!