I have to thank my friend Ray for bringing to my attention an interesting trademark dispute involving one of my favorite breakfast joints dating back to when I was a kid living in Paramus, New Jersey. The International House of Pancakes (more commonly known by the acronym “IHOP”) is a large chain of casual restaurants widely known for serving delicious breakfast items, especially large, fluffy pancakes of all different flavors. According to its website, there are nearly 1,500 IHOP restaurants located in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, Canada, Mexico, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands, most of which are franchised. IHOP serves an astounding 700 million pancakes per year (a significant number of which are no doubt part of the embarrassing-to-order “Rooty Tooty Fresh ‘N Fruity” breakfast combo) and it advertises quite extensively on radio and national television.
As you would expect, IHOP owns a number of federal trademark registrations for IHOP and INTERNATIONAL HOUSE OF PANCAKES (Registration Nos. 2332311, 2942609, 3429406, 3429405, 3514724, 3408102, and 3507059), most of which are for restaurant services and food products. My review of the Trademark Office’s records indicates that the INTERNATIONAL HOUSE OF PANCAKES mark has been in use since 1958 and the IHOP acronym was adopted around 1972. Needless to say, both the IHOP and INTERNATIONAL HOUSE OF PANCAKES trademarks would likely be considered famous since they are well-recognized by a vast majority of the general public.
While some people may worship IHOP, others actually worship at IHOP. Yep, a church based in Kansas City has been calling itself the “International House of Prayer” since approximately 1999 and uses the acronym IHOP in connection with its religious prayer services. Although the International House of Prayer does not own any federal registrations for its name, I note that it filed a trademark application in 2000 seeking to register INTERNATIONAL HOUSE OF PRAYER, but the application went abandoned when it failed to respond to an office action issued by the Trademark Office. You can learn more about this organization by visiting its website located at www.ihop.org (don’t accidentally type “.com” or you’ll probably end up craving pancakes).
I’m sure you’ve already figured out where this is going. According to various news reports (see here and here), the International House of Pancakes has sued the International House of Prayer for trademark infringement and dilution stemming from its use of the IHOP acronym. The International House of Pancakes is alleging that the International House of Prayer chose its name knowing that it would be abbreviated as IHOP and had the malicious intent to ride on the extensive fame and goodwill of the International House of Pancakes’ IHOP mark. The lawsuit apparently is not seeking any monetary damages other than the costs of the litigation and attorneys’ fees.
Although I believe the International House of Pancakes may be able to succeed on its dilution of a famous mark claim, I’m not sure it makes very good business sense to bring such a lawsuit and potentially alienate churchgoers and other religious figures who now might choose to eat breakfast or lunch somewhere else rather than the International House of Pancakes. It just doesn’t look good to sue a church and many people may see the International House of Pancakes as simply a bully who is picking on a peaceful and benevolent organization that does not have a huge war chest to spend on litigation. Obviously, the International House of Pancakes has to protect its valuable intellectual property, but some lawsuits are just more hassle from a PR perspective than they’re worth.
And if someone in charge at the International House of Pancakes happens to stumble across this posting, I have a few questions: Why is it that I get coupons in the mail for Denny’s nearly every week, but I almost never receive any coupons from you? And when I do receive a coupon, why is it only good Monday through Friday and why do I always have to buy two beverages in order to get the 20% discount? If I would have only ordered water, my 20% discount is pretty much nullified by having to purchase the two beverages I didn’t even want at $2.00 each. So, thanks for nothing you cheapskates.