IHOP vs. Evangelical Group: A Sticky Situation

International House of Pancakes LLC (IHOP) filed a trademark infringement suit against a church in Missouri.  The complaint accuses the International House of Prayer of improperly using the breakfast restaurant’s famous acronym. IHOP alleges that the House of Prayer is guilty of dilution, trademark infringement and unfair competition in violation of the Lanham Act.  We have studied these laws in class this semester, so this is a good chance to review the trademark laws in a typical trademark case

According to the complaint, IHOP was founded in Toluca Lake, Calif., in 1958.  By1960, the company began to franchise. The complaint states that use of the “IHOP” trademark began as early as 1973.

Remember that under U.S. common law a company can claim trademark of a word, phrase, symbol, or design by being the first to use the mark in commerce.  “Use in commerce” is one of the most important aspects of trademark law.  Therefore, the lawyers who drafted the complaint carefully stated that there are 1,500 IHOP restaurants in the U.S., including at least one in every state, with 45 restaurants located in Missouri alone (where the suit was filed).

Additionally, the complaint plainly states, “Each of the IHOP marks is distinctive, strong, and widely recognized among the general consuming public as a designation of goods and services originating with, sponsored by, approved by, or affiliated with IHOP.”  Why do they include that language?  That is another important aspect of trademark law.  It is critical to trademark law the mark identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others in the mind of the public consumer.  Because the public’s perception of the word, phrase, symbol, or design may be relevant to the legal dispute, attorneys will occasional use consumer surveys or public opinion polls as evidence. In trademark cases, the law will protect those marks which, in the minds of the consuming public, identify the producer of the goods.  In this case I don’t believe that IHOP will have to use such evidence – IHOP is an nationally recognized trademark.

In the present case, House of Prayer adopted the names “International House of Prayer,” “IHOP,” “IHOP-KC,” “International House of Prayer University,” and “IHOPU” to refer to House of Prayer Kansas City’s evangelical mission organization and the services it provides.  According to their website, the International House of Prayer Missions Base was founded on May 7, 1999, by Mike Bickle and twenty full-time “intercessory missionaries.”

IHOP alleges confusion based on their mark: “Several persons have either been confused by House of Prayer’s use of ‘IHOP’ or felt the need to clarify whether the “IHOP” reference was to House of Prayer Kansas City or plaintiffs.”

I am fairly sure this is a win for the Pancake IHOP (or a settlement.)

If you want to read the complaint, Justia has the docket linked online.  The case title is IHOP IP LLC et al. v. International House of Prayer et al., in the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Missouri.



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