Business

Suffolk law students, small business win fight with Nautica

US Patent and Trademark Office
The NautiGirl logo

When Christine Palmerton started printing an image of a blue-haired flapper at the wheel of a ship on playing cards, mugs, and tote bags in 2008, she had a certain customer in mind. The brand, called “NautiGirl,” was meant for fun, female boaters — a niche audience, but one Palmerton identified with as the owner of a yacht charter company.

Sales were small, but she bought a website, filed a trademark application for the illustration, and started pitching her gear at trade shows.

In 2013, she was hit by a lawsuit from Nautica, the sailing-themed lifestyle brand owned by VF Corp. of Greensboro, N.C.

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The message: NautiGirl infringes on our trademarks. Back off.

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“I felt like I can’t just lay down and die,” said Palmerton, a resident of Bellingham, Wash. “That’s not my brand.”

That’s where a group of students from Suffolk Law School came in. After a nearly three-year fight before the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, Palmerton prevailed over Nautica, and its effort to cancel her trademark was dismissed.

“Her business was her livelihood. She wasn’t trying to capitalize on Nautica’s fame,” said Christina Mott, who helped on the case as a third-year law student and is now a Superior Court law clerk. “With a case like this, it’s more like running a marathon instead of your hundred-meter dash.”

In a ruling issued late last month, the trademark board considered past cases in which trademarks shared common roots. Consistent with its finding that Toucan Sam and his Froot Loops were “indisputably dissimilar” to a product called Frootee Ice, and another that found trademarking “creamsicle,” “fudgesicle,” and “cakesicle” did not give a trademark holder any claim to the general suffix “-sicle,” the trademark board ruled that Nautica doesn’t control the ocean-themed prefix “Nauti-.”

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Nautica and its attorneys did not respond to requests for comment.

US Patent and Trademark Office
Nautica logos

Several students worked on the case as it wound its way through the trademark process. They were led by Eve Brown, who launched Suffolk’s Intellectual Property and Entrepreneurship clinic in 2013 and headed it until this past summer. Anne Hulecki, an attorney who has run the program since July, said the clinic gives students the chance to get the kind of experience they don’t usually get until they have graduated from law school.

“Every lawyer needs to understand software, technology, biotech,” Hulecki said. “That’s what Boston’s known for.”

The legal clinic offers help to entrepreneurs and startups that otherwise couldn’t afford to fight a lengthy trademark or copyright battle, Hulecki said. It’s currently representing Auratone, a Nashville speaker manufacturing company that lost control of its trademark when its founder died, she said, and a photographer who took pictures of several rock stars that are being used without his permission.

For Palmerton, the representation means her business can grow again. Without her trademark secured, she said, she would not be able to get any investors to sign on. Now, she plans to give her website a face lift, seek new sources of capital, and vigorously defend her own trademark, which she hired an artist to create several years ago.

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“We’ve just been treading water,” she said. “I’ve already had people copying me.”

Suffolk is not the only Boston-area school with a law clinic focused on intellectual property. Brown leads a similar program at Boston University.

Jack Newsham can be reached
at jack.newsham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheNewsHam.