Catonsville man challenges Hon trademark

He's calling it the first shot fired in the Battle of the Hons.

An area writer has thrown down the gauntlet — or is it a housecoat? — challenging the legitimacy of the three-letter trademark that has had Baltimore up in arms through the holiday season.

Bruce Goldfarb, a Catonsville writer who runs the website "Welcome to Baltimore, Hon," plans to start selling coffee mugs emblazoned with the word "Hon."

He's doing it with hopes of proving that Denise Whiting, the founder of Honfest, the city's annual homage to an apocryphal Baltimore gal known for her beehive hairdo and cat's-eye glasses, has no legal claim on the word.

"The goal is to establish that Hon is in the public domain and to provoke her into a fight to defend her claim," Goldfarb said Tuesday. "It's not a legitimate mark. Period."

Whiting, who also owns Hampden's Cafe Hon, declined to speak to The Baltimore Sun about the challenge.

"I have absolutely no comment," Whiting said Tuesday morning.

Though Whiting has held various Hon-related trademarks since she opened the cafe in 1992, people only heard about it through news reports in December. To many in town, the word Hon conjures images of their mothers or their grandmothers — tough, hard-working women who scrubbed marble steps and sassed their customers at the diner.

Incredulous that one person could own what seemed to be a part of city folklore — something, no less, that spoke to its beloved, blue-collar roots — people took their spirited objections to the Internet, the opinion pages and the streets of Hampden.

The outcry seemed to peak the week before Christmas, when protesters picketed outside Cafe Hon and Whiting's new gift store, Hontown.

During the protest, Whiting said she had no plans to abandon the trademark.

"We will continue to celebrate 'Hon' and we welcome everyone into Cafe Hon and into Hontown if they're protesters or lovers or haters, neighborhood people, poor or rich," she said. "Everyone is welcome, Hon."

Goldfarb reasons that Whiting should never have been able to trademark a word that's become such a part of the city's lexicon.

While the move is not altogether without risk, Baltimore trademark attorney James Astrachan thinks Goldfarb has a solid case.

"I think it's a very real challenge," Astrachan said. "Only strong marks are enforceable and Hon is such a terrifically weak mark, used by so many people for so many things."

Astrachan said Goldfarb's test could go a couple of ways. By selling the Hon mugs, he's almost taunting Whiting. First, Whiting could have her attorney send Goldfarb a cease-and-desist letter. If Goldfarb ignores it, Whiting could sue him. Or he could go to court first, asking a judge for declaratory relief.

In either of those scenarios, the matter would likely wind up in the hands of a judge who would decide if the trademark has merit.

If Whiting doesn't take Goldfarb's bait, she's knowingly allowing the market to become, Astrachan puts it, "diluted." That doesn't mean she couldn't sue the next person who tried to sell Hon memorabilia, he said, but it might mean she'd have less of a case.

So there's a threat to Whiting's trademark if she takes action and a different sort of danger if she doesn't.

"He's out there double-daring her," Astrachan said. "He's leading with his chin, asking her to take a shot."

Goldfarb said it didn't much matter what he chose to sell. He settled on mugs, but it could have been shirts or posters or stickers. He just wanted to produce something with Hon on it to draw Whiting out. "It's what's she going to do about it," he explains.

The white mugs with red lettering will be available on his website, as soon as Wednesday. He said he'll be selling them at cost, for $10.99. He's quick to add that he doesn't care how many he sells — making money isn't what he's after.

A lawsuit is.

And if it happens, he isn't worried about the outcome.

Whiting, who wears cat's-eye spectacles herself, repeatedly has stated that she had no intention of waving the trademark at waitresses who sweet-talk their customers — or folks like the mystery man who affixes the word to the "Welcome to Baltimore" sign at the threshold to the city on Route 295.

That's done essentially nothing to deflect the vitriol aimed her way. Goldfarb's challenge is only the latest example.

Someone inverted Whiting's well-known oval "Hon" bumper sticker to read "NOH." Someone else redrafted the famous Christmas song to "12 Days of Copyrights" ("On the fourth day of Christmas, copyrighted by me, four Formstones, three Poe poems, two crab cakes and a ditty by Francis Scott Key.") Quite a few people with Facebook accounts adjusted their settings to make "Hon" their middle name.

Before Christmas, a Facebook page called "No one Owns Hon, Hon" had accumulated 2,324 fans. Monday it had even more: 2,849. That's nearly 1,000 more than Cafe Hon itself, which has 1,983.

Goldfarb, 53, has run the "Welcome to Baltimore, Hon" website, which he calls part city guide, part virtual museum, since about 2006. He also works an editor for the Arbutus Patch, a local news website. Whiting has made no move against his site but Goldfarb says he's getting into this fight on behalf of "bloggers, artists, businesses and other 'hon'-related entities in the Baltimore area."

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

And a few years ago, when Whiting found out that a businessman was selling Hon merchandise at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, she forced him to turn over all of the goods and pay her attorney fees.

"I'm just protecting the business I started 19 years ago," she said a few weeks ago. "It's that simple."