My friend quite reasonably felt the restaurant’s reaction was over the top. “I can't see how this could hurt them,” he wrote. “It’s not like someone is going to wander into this prayer house thinking they’re going to get pancakes.”
Fair enough. But, unlike my friend, trademark law does not much concern itself with common sense.
One of the requirements for protecting a trade name is policing its use. This includes having lawyers send nasty notes to anyone who even approaches infringement or misuse. So in the course of protecting your name, looking petty on occasion comes with the territory. When the offending party happens to be a church, you risk looking worse than petty.
That the restaurant and the church occupy separate verticals raises an interesting nuance more or less unique to this case.
Normally, a name used in one vertical is fair game in another. You can open Dell’s Bakery & Radiator Shop without trouble from the friendly lawyers at Dell Computer Corporation. But uniquely coined words are another matter. Your last name may be Kodak, but you won’t get far if you open up the “Kodak Mattress Company.”
I suspect that IHOP lands closer to the Kodak than to the Dell end of the spectrum. As acronym-turned-name, IHOP is unique. To most people, it refers to the restaurants, period. Allowing a church to coin IHOP could in turn lead to IHOP clothing stores, IHOP daycare centers, IHOP contact lenses and so on, until IHOP ceased to be a unique name. An admitted slippery-slope argument, but a valid one in terms of trademark precedent.
So, I feel for the restaurant. If they fail to rigorously protect their name, they risk losing it. On the other hand, suing a house of worship makes for crappy PR.
A related problem recently arose between Johnson & Johnson and the American Red Cross. Both have shared the cross symbol sans spat for decades. But recently Red Cross started licensing the symbol to commercial enterprises. This indeed puts J&J’s mark at risk. But … who wants to be the big bad wolf seen huffing and puffing at the Red Cross?
Disclaimer: I’m no lawyer. Don’t use this as legal advice, OK?