The threat of legal action over a coffee house's name has plenty of folks simmering, but the most famous member of the band Twisted Sister says this is about a household name.
The founding member of Twisted Sister, John French, is threatening to sue the two sisters and owners of a Mission coffee house over the store's name, which is the same as the band.
Dee Snider, who drew headlines in the 1980s for his mass of kinky blonde hair, outrageous makeup and even more controversial behavior, spoke to KCTV5 about the controversy as he is promoting the second season of his television comedy Holliston.
Snider said he is aware of the uproar, but he said French has always been "very crazy" about protecting the trademark. He said French told him about his trademark the first day that Snider joined the band.
"'I own the name,'" he recalled French telling him. "He's very crazy about protecting the trademark, and he sues everybody."
Snider joined the band in 1976.
An attorney on behalf of French wrote Sandi Russell and her sister, Nancy Hansen, on March 25 that they were contemplating legal action for using the name Twisted Sister.
"Our client commenced use of the TWISTED SISTER mark in 1973 and has developed a considerable amount of goodwill in and to the TWISTED SISTER mark and brand," the letter states.
The attorney also took issue with them using the website www.twistedsisterscoffeeshop.com, saying it would dilute the famous band's trademark. They demanded transfer of the domain.
"People are going crazy because it seems like this Goliath is attacking this David, this poor little David for the Twisted Sister trademark," Snider said. "I told JJ, I said, 'You know, man, you've got to call in to some of these TV shows and some of these radio shows and defend yourself.' Because he apparently tried to work something out with the people at that shop and their first response was, 'Who's Twisted Sister?' They actually said they'd never heard of the band. Really? Really? That much I know. Everybody's heard of Twisted Sister."
In fact, Russell on May 8 did write back French's attorneys that she hadn't heard of the 1980s band before receiving the letter.
"Quite honestly, when I first received your letter, I truly had to go to the site you provided to learn of this band. Sorry. After Elvis, the Beatles and the Beach Boys, my love of music tends to be country," she wrote.
Russell explained that her younger brother, John, had named her and her sister "twisted sisters" and he also called her sister "the blonde tornado."
"All of the references to twisted, twisters and tornadoes come out of where we live, Middle America, Tornado Alley, home of Dorothy and Toto," she wrote.
She said the original idea was to call the shop "Twisted Sisters and Brother John's Coffee Shop," but then her brother died in 2011 of a heart attack when he was just 53 years old. She said she and her sister eventually bought and opened the shop in August 2012.
"Honestly, we are a 1000-square-foot coffee shop in Middle America, painted with HGTV paint colors playing classical music," she said. "I would hope our sense of family, honesty and community would be Twisted Sisters Coffee Shop legacy along with being a friendly, comfortable place to come and enjoy a great cup of coffee with friends and family."
She closed her letter by saying she was open to ideas but, "Right now, I am at a loss as to what we could possibly call ourselves that could emulate why we are 'Twisted Sisters Coffee Shop' with our logo of tornado coming out of a ruby red coffee cup."
Snider said the issue comes down to the band's legacy.
"For better or for worse, it's a household word," he said.
French's attorney wrote to the sisters that French has successfully won trademark right fights against unauthorized parties such as Six Flags, Harley-Davidson Motor Co. and Urban Decay Cosmetics.
"Most recently, our client was successful in requiring Twisted Sister Bakery in Chicago and Twisted Sister Pizza in Massachusetts to change their names," he wrote. "These companies recognized the right of Mr. French and ceased their use of the infringing trademarks."
He closed his letter by saying he wanted to resolve the issue amicably.
KCTV5 interviewed trademark attorney Dianne Smith-Misemer said the letter is standard practice.
"Really, from a trademark holder's position, it is the right thing to do to enforce your mark," she explained, "so that when you go to enforce it against someone else they can't point to a third party and say, 'Well you're letting them use it for this. Why are you picking on me?'"
Yet she wonders if the guitarist is going overboard.
Twisted Sister went through the federal registration process and received a trademark in 1978 in the category of "Good and Services: Entertainment Services Rendered by a Vocal and Instrumental Group." Typically, Smith-Misemer said, a trademark case rests on two things: whether the marks, or names, are similar and whether the goods and services are similar.
A band and a coffee shop fall into different categories, but they don't need to be identical categories to be an issue. They merely need to be related enough for a consumer to think there is a connection, the trademark attorney explained.
"If you have any familiarity with the Twisted Sister rock band," Smith-Misemer said, "are you going to think that same owner of the brand, who's now John French, has gone into the coffee house business in Mission, KS? That's what the courts ask. Are consumers likely to be confused?"
French's attorney also says their trademark is famous.
Some trademarks like Nike, Apple, McDonald's, Pepsi, Coca-Cola and Walt Disney are pervasive and famous.
"You're so pervasive in society that any goods or services used with that mark, people are going to make the automatic connection,"Smith-Misemer explained.
But this case involving a band most famous from the 1980s might be a harder case to make in court.
"I'm not saying that people don't still know and listen to Twisted Sister music, but I wouldn't put them in the same category of The Beatles and The Rolling Stones and Madonna," she said. "I think that they would be hard-pressed to show that consumers are going to be have any passing concern or question that this little coffee house in Mission is being endorsed or affiliated with or somehow sponsored by the rock band."
Ultimately, these cases often come down to "who has more money and better lawyers and who can push who around," Smith-Misemer said.
But not every interaction ends with a name change. There is a Twisted Sisters yarn shop in California that received a valid trademark in 2005 and a Twisted Sisters boutique in Ohio with a valid trademark from 2007.
Russell concedes she might have to change the name if push comes to shove.
But for now, she's biding her time.
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