02 August 2005

That's my line.


The July 28 New York Times reports a California businessman has filed a lawsuit against American Express, claiming they stole his tagline of the company's "My life. My card." (see DIFFUSIONBlog 01 February 2005 “This is not My Card”).

While American Express has maintained in court filings that it owns the legal rights to the slogan, lawyers for the businessman Mr Stephen Goetz, a credit card marketer in San Francisco, plan to subpoena evidence from American Express' advertising agency Ogilvy & Mather.

The issue is who owns the line and whether American Express independently conceived the idea for the campaign that began in November last year, or took it from the businessman Mr Goetz, who claims he used it in a sales pitch to the financial services company in the previous July. Subsequently, American Express spent more than $88.9 million on credit card advertising in the first quarter and according to TNS Media, much of that featured the line "My life. My card." .

The various counter claims in the court filings has Mr Goetz claiming he provided the slogan to American Express on a proposal in July 2004, Ogilvy did not run the campaign until November 2004 but claim they registered the strapline as a domain name in September that year (the article doesn’t say what the domain name Mr Goetz was and whether it actually exists). Mr Goetz also claims he registered the line with the US Patent Office in September, while American Express claim they registered it a week later.

At DIFFUSION we believe the ownership and origin of taglines, straplines and slogans can be a contentious area for companies and businesses. The important thing for owners and their agents to do is to create an extensive and registerable paper trail for the development of the name, register what is registerable and steer clear of the generic. In many cases, similarly worded and generic taglines, straplines and slogans, often used and trademarked by different companies operating in different business areas, are tolerated as long as they are seen as markedly dissimilar in look and feel.

The problem for American Express, Ogilvy&Mather and Mr Goetz is to be able to sufficiently demonstrate an origin and ownership papertrail and we’re left wondering if any of them actually can.

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