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Sorry, Hon, it's trademarked: Cafe owner owns rights to word

Denise Whiting has not only built her life around the fabled Balmer Hon, opening Cafe Hon and founding the city's annual Honfest — she's helped to make the three-letter term of endearment a household word around town.

Now she owns it.

Whiting has officially trademarked the word "Hon." Over the years, she has trademarked almost every play on the word she could think of. Like the words "Cafe Hon" and "Honfest" and "Hon Bar" and "Hontown," the name of her newest Hampden shop. She owns the image of the word captured in an oval, the way it appears on all those bumper stickers. And that's just for starters.

She owns the rights to using "Hon" on napkins, note cards, stationery, calendars and pens. Without her permission, it can't be used on sweatshirts, hats, underwear, ties, shorts — and certainly not boas.

This fall, when the Maryland Transit Administration wanted to incorporate a few beehived and bespectacled Hons into the campaign for its new fare card, the Charm Card, along with the phrase, "Get yours, Hon," the agency had to go through Whiting. She didn't charge them money, but she did insist on approving each individual ad, poster and television commercial.

Whiting says the trademarking isn't about profit — it's about controlling a brand she's worked hard to build. She applied for her first one in 1992.

"I took ownership of it," she says of the word "Hon." "No one along the line has celebrated it or created as much with it as I have. When I started doing Cafe Hon in 1992, 18 and a half years ago, where was the city then? Where was Hampden? So you could say I took a little word, celebrated it and created change. Big change."

Even so, longtime Baltimoreans object to the idea that someone can lay claim to "Hon." What next? Trying to own Charm City's charm, its red bricks or the fresh-baked smell that wafts over Southeast Baltimore from the H&S bakery?

"I understand her need and desire to own and trademark Cafe Hon," says Benn Ray, president of the Hampden Village Merchants Association. "But no one woman is Hon. Nor should anyone own it. It belongs to the city of Baltimore."

Mike Evitts, spokesman for Downtown Partnership, reacted with incredulity when he heard the word had been trademarked. "Are you kidding? You can't do that," he said, his voice rising with disbelief. "That's like trade-marking the word 'sweetheart.'

"In the civic sense, it's un-ownable. It's not something you can litigate over; it's a state of being."

And yet, Whiting owns it. Legally and officially.

The word is hers, forever. Or at least until a serious challenge comes along.

James B. Astrachan, who teaches trademark law as an adjunct professor at the University of Maryland School of Law, thinks it's just a matter of time.

"She's taken the vernacular and is trying to create proprietary rights, and that's just wrong," he says. "That is a word that really ought to belong to everybody. Despite the fact there is a registration, the courts have discretion to enforce trademark laws. How many people know she's the source of 'hon' when every waitress in the city who plops down a piece of pie in front of you says, 'Enjoy this, hon'?"

Evitts had questions along those same lines. For instance, he asked, "When a waitress at Jimmy's refers to a customer, is there going to be a subpoena?"

The short answer is no, says Whiting's trademark attorney, Kathryn Miller Goldman.

Waitresses at Jimmy's are safe, as is anyone who casually refers to another as "Hon," as so many Baltimoreans have done for ages. Folks who dress up in beehives for costume parties won't be busted. Nor will Hon Man, the mysterious guy who for years has surreptitiously pasted "Hon" on the official Baltimore welcome sign on Interstate 295.

"She's not trying to suggest that people can't use the word 'Hon'; it's that they can't sell things using the word 'Hon,'" Miller Goldman explains. "People can't take her mark and put it on their goods. That's what trademark is all about. I can't put Coca-Cola on the side of my law practice."

The point behind trademarking is protecting one's identifier in the marketplace, Astrachan says. One can trademark words, slogans, sounds and colors — anything, he says that the public comes to recognize as an indicator of goods or services.

The process of acquiring a trademark can be expensive, complicated and lengthy, he says, with approval often taking as long as a year.

A few years ago, Whiting found out that someone was hawking Hon merchandise at BWI Airport — mugs, shot glasses, pins, shirts, magnets and that sort of thing. She says she found out who it was and confronted him.

"I had a meeting with him and said you have to give me all the merchandise, basically," Whiting recalls. "I think I might have paid him a little bit of money, but he gave me all the merchandise and paid the attorney fees. It was a ton of merchandise. I went down to the Inner Harbor and gave away all the T-shirts. But I pinned Cafe Hon postcards on them."

The MTA worked out its agreement with Whiting over the summer, after they called her to talk about their plan and she informed them that their idea fell under the purview of her trademark. And officials there seem thrilled with the reaction it has gotten from having the iconic Baltimore image associated with the light rail. They aren't begrudging Whiting for capitalizing on the Hon. "If you see an opportunity, grab it," says MTA spokesman David Clark.

"The Baltimore Hon is just the symbol of our town," Clark adds. "There's been an incredible rider reaction to the campaign. People say it captures their imagination, the ads are funny and they provide a positive image for the city."

Whiting points out that she didn't charge the MTA to use the word "Hon" or the Hon image. And when a local nonprofit organization wanted to have a Hon-themed fundraiser, she only charged them $25.

That said, Whiting thinks when the time is right, there could be opportunity to use the Hon brand to make real money. For instance, if Baltimore's tourism bureau wanted to adapt its slogan from "Get in on it" to "Get in on it, Hon," or something like that, it would have to negotiate with Whiting, according to her lawyer. "We'd have to see about that," she says.

If the city did one day come to her, wanting to use Hon in a tourism campaign, she said she'd be willing to let them run with it — if they built a parking lot in the busy Hampden shopping corridor.

"I know that something is going to happen," she says. "It's going to be fun. And I'm going to be ready."

She's also more than aware that not everyone sees her ownership of the word as positively as she does.

"People are going to be mad. People are going to be mad they didn't think of it themselves," she says. "There will be those that thing it's a brilliant marketing campaign and get it. There will be people that just get mad and won't be able to comprehend."

jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Sun reporter Laura Vozzella contributed to this article.

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