Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Customized pens and manufacturer lawsuits

If you buy a car and customize it, that's OK. If you buy a name-brand shirt and customize it with transfers or embroidery, that's OK, too. It's also OK to resell what you've customized -- though of course it would be wrong if you misrepresented what you added to the product as being anything but your own work.

Some manufacturers, however, don't see it that way. They don't want anyone altering their products, and are willing to use the threat of ruination through litigation to get their way -- right or wrong.

That, at least, was the story making the rounds at the recent Columbus pen show, with continuing discussion since online. Montblanc has apparently filed a lawsuit against Roger Cromwell, a California pen seller and repairman, over his online listing of a current-production Montblanc pen customized in South America with a fancy metal overlay. I don't know all the details, but it seems to me that if the online description failed to give sufficient emphasis to the fact that the decoration of the pen was neither by Montblanc nor Montblanc-authorized, a simple warning letter would have sufficed. It's also strange that I've heard nothing of any legal action being pursued against the company actually doing the customization (their identity has always been quite public) or against anyone else selling their pens. As is, it looks very much like a little guy is being made an example of -- not the best thing for Montblanc's corporate image.

UPDATE: Much more detail in the discussion over at Fountain Pen Network; the discussion actually began first at Pentrace, but may no longer be accessible there due to the archive-less nature of the site.

Here's a press release from 2005 about the dismissal of a suit brought in 2001 by Montblanc against Aurora over alleged trademark infringement, unfair competition, and dilution claims regarding Aurora's use of caps with three bands -- a trademark claimed by Montblanc, but with a long, long history of prior use by other penmakers around the world.

UPDATE: The lawsuit has been settled; the judgment document can be seen here. From what I hear, Montblanc was not happy with all the bad publicity coming out of its hardball tactics in this case. The defendant is still out substantial legal costs, but reports are that the damages to be paid to settle will be token.

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