Laura Vozzella: 'Hon' trademarker says she's sorry. Again

Cafe Hon owner and "hon" trademarker Denise Whiting wants Baltimore to know she's sorry.

Not sorry that she trademarked the town's classic term of endearment. Just sorry that she spoke about it so clumsily that her adopted hometown came to think of her as greedy. And sorry that nobody seemed to be listening a month ago, when she said basically the same thing in a letter to The Baltimore Sun.

The newest apology came Wednesday in the form of a news release.

"I apologize to everyone in Baltimore for misspeaking," Whiting says in the release. "Many of my fellow citizens are clearly upset and worried that our trademark position means they can't use the word as they wish. I'm sorry for creating the impression that I can stop people from using the word, and for causing such an outcry here.

"No one can own a word or stop people from saying it or using it, but I know that some things I said to reporters have many people thinking that I do 'own' it — or at least think I do. That's simply not the case. I know that my trademark is limited in scope and I have failed to convey that in recent comments to the media."

Whiting said essentially the same thing in a letter to the editor that ran in The Sun on Dec. 19. Why say it again in a news release?

"I'm not sure people had listened," said Baltimore trademark attorney Ned T. Himmelrich, whom Whiting has retained to consult with her on trademark issues and to whom the news release directed media inquiries. "People got so up in arms. … What she said has been drowned out."

While the apology itself didn't break new ground, one of its assertions wound up shedding some light.

Cafe Hon's trademark "does not extend into uses beyond what it sells, nor does it extend into any publicly spoken use of the word," Whiting's statement reads. It goes on to claim that Whiting "pledges to be a responsible trademark holder and exercise her trademark rights only to the extent that there would be brand confusion if she were to act otherwise."

But how does that explain what happened last fall, when the Maryland Transit Administration set out to promote its new fare card with the slogan, "Get yours, Hon." Whiting did not make the agency pay any money, but she insisted on approving all of the ads, posters and TV spots.

Does Whiting have her own mass-transit operation that might be confused with the state's?

Himmelrich said that bit about the MTA stuck in his craw, too, when the dispute first erupted and he was just an ordinary Baltimore trademark attorney not yet in Whiting's employ.

"I will tell you, the MTA issue bothered me when I read about it," he said. "But the nitty-gritty facts, if you know them, make her absolutely reasonable."

Turns out that the MTA approached Whiting because it wanted to use Honfest photos from the Cafe Hon website — images that were clearly property of her business — in its fare card campaign, Himmelrich said.

"As the program evolved, the MTA ended up not using her brand and not using her pictures, but it had already been set that there had been an agreement and the owner had oversight," Himmelrich said.

MTA spokesman David Clark confirmed that account.

So why didn't Whiting make that part clear from the start? Not that it would calm all of her critics, but it would help.

"In an interview, when you're talking, you know that you know, but you don't realize that might help the reader," Himmelrich said.

In any case, here's Whiting's current stance on the limits of her trademark, as articulated by Himmelrich: "She knows hairdos and glasses, she doesn't control that. But when it's Honfest and her pictures, those are rights she has."

Got that, hon?

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