State Chamber of Commerce sues Christian counterpart

July 7, 2008

On June 15, the Indiana Chamber of Commerce, which represents more than 4,800 businesses around the state, filed a federal lawsuit against the upstart Indiana Christian Chamber of Commerce. The complaint alleges trademark infringement, unfair competition, counterfeiting and forgery.

"We're just trying to prevent people from being confused," said Ice Miller LLP partner Jay Taylor, who represents the Indiana Chamber of Commerce in the lawsuit.

"We certainly want the name to be changed. We've been asking for them to do that from the very beginning. Quite frankly, we've never received any response, and had no alternative but to file suit."

The Indiana Chamber, formed in 1922, is one of the most powerful lobbying organizations in the state. The not-for-profit, which has more than $7 million in revenue and 53 employees, regularly attempts to sway legislators on issues like environmental regulations, economic development and taxes.

The Christian Chamber debuted last September. It bills itself as an organization that provides business leaders biblical insight on workplace issues and market strategies found in Scripture.

Information on the Christian Chamber's membership and finances was not available. The organization would not comment beyond issuing a statement saying it would consult with its legal counsel before determining its next step.

"We feel we obtained our name appropriately, which is really no different from the 30-some chambers in the greater Indianapolis area," the statement said.

"We do not expect this suit to have any effect on the growth and support we've enjoyed since our launch. We are truely [sic] excited about what God has provided and look forward to what He has planned for the future."

Indiana Chamber representatives say they don't have the same beef with the many other central Indiana chamber organizations--groups ranging from the Indiana State Hispanic Chamber to the Indy Rainbow Chamber--because those names are not as similar.

The key issue for the court to decide is whether "Indiana Chamber of Commerce" applies exclusively to the statewide chamber, or simply describes a service many organizations provide, said Donald Knebel, an Indianapolis attorney not involved in the squabble.

"In any trademark case, the issue will be whether the plaintiff can prove the mark uniquely identifies it," said Knebel, who chairs Barnes & Thornburgh LLP's Intellectual Property Department.

He said a similar issue was at the crux of a 2004 lawsuit that North Carolina-based grocer The Fresh Market filed against locally based Marsh Supermarkets Inc. over its use of the "Arthur's Fresh Market" moniker. Marsh won that case.

The Indiana Chamber and Christian Chamber have similarities beyond their names. Both have active lobbying efforts, sometimes taking stands on the same issues.

The Christian Chamber's executive director, Sue Swayze, formerly led lobbying for the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce.

On the Christian Chamber's Web site, she has posted interviews with prominent figures, including State Rep. Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis; State Rep. Peggy Welch, D-Bloomington; and Indianapolis Colts Chaplain Ken Johnson.

The Christian Chamber calls its lobbying the "Gatekeepers Action Network: a Christian voice in Indiana politics." Both chambers provide free legal counsel to their members. Recent Christian Chamber events listed on its Web site include networking breakfasts and a "Faith on the Green" golf outing.

Documents filed in U.S. District Court in Indianapolis show that the Indiana Chamber has quietly attempted to persuade the Christian Chamber to change its name since last fall.

In an October letter, Ice Miller's Taylor warned Swayze about infringing on the trademarked Indiana Chamber of Commerce name and Web site. He repeated the warning in another letter in April.

"Your failure to respond to our earlier letter suggests that you have no intention of complying with our requests and resolving this matter in an amicable fashion," Taylor wrote. "Several alternatives to the name 'Indiana Christian Chamber of Commerce' were offered to you as being acceptable to ICC, to which you have not responded."

Taylor went on to demand that the Christian Chamber quit using its name and transfer its Web domain, www.indianachristianchamber.com, to the Indiana Chamber. His lawsuit makes the same request and also seeks legal costs and unspecified damages for trademark infringement.

The Indiana Chamber is basing its Web site arguments on the Federal Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act, as well as Indiana law. It also argues that the Christian Chamber, by infringing on its protected trademark, committed criminal conversion. The counterfeiting and forgery allegations stem from the Christian Chamber's attempts to publicize itself.

The Indiana Chamber became concerned after state legislators expressed confusion about overlap and assumed an affiliation between the two groups, said George Raymond, the Indiana Chamber vice president of human resources, labor relations and civil justice.

"We think the name can create and does create confusion," Raymond said. "It'd be like the Indianapolis Christian Business Journal. Would that cause you guys any problems?"

Roland Dorson, the Greater Indianapolis Chamber of Commerce's president, calls himself an impartial observer of the dispute.

"The world is a big place. There are, depending on the latest count, upwards of 5,000 chambers in the country, representing a wide variety of interests," he said. "It seems the market can accommodate thousands of chambers."

At the same time, Dorson was sympathetic to the Indiana Chamber's concerns about erosion of its long-trademarked brand. He called it "a shame" that court action is necessary to settle the matter.

But Raymond said the Christian Chamber's failure to respond to the Indiana Chamber's concerns left it no choice.

"We didn't do this lightly, and we do it reluctantly. But our attempts to settle this without resorting to this have born no fruit," Raymond said. "We finally reached a point where we didn't think we had an alternative to protect the name and prevent confusion."

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