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Published on October 23, 2006

Naming rights—expensive lesson

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Opinion

AKRON (Oct. 23, 2006) — The dispute between an Ohio tire dealer and Monro Muffler Brake Inc. over the “Mr. Tire” name offers a lesson for dealers thinking of starting a business, changing the name of their current operation or looking to create a company slogan.


You better do your research beforehand on that banner or phrase to avoid unwanted surprises. And even if you do, you still might end up with a potentially expensive legal problem.


Clyde Hampton, the owner of Mr. Tire of Columbus (Ohio), found that out when Monro decided to rebadge 13 ProCare Automotive service outlets it acquired earlier this year in Ohio with the Mr. Tire name.


Rochester, N.Y.-based Monro is a colossal-sized retail chain that operates more than 700 automotive service locations nationwide, including 115 tire stores, 87 of which go by Mr. Tire Auto Service Centers.


The company wants Mr. Hamp-ton to stop using the Mr. Tire name for his single-location commercial tire dealership.


What complicates this issue is that both companies took steps to legally use and protect the name.


Mr. Hampton, who has owned Mr. Tire of Columbus for six years and even goes by the nickname “Mr. Tire,” registered the name within Ohio.


Monro has a licensing agreement with Universal Cooperatives Inc. of Eden, Minn., which owns the federal trademark for Mr. Tire. Universal Cooperatives' trademark extends back to around the 1960s through various acquisitions.


So therein lies the rub.


While it may end up that the courts decide who's right or wrong, the disagreement illustrates how important it is for dealers to determine that a name or slogan isn't already in use by someone else, somewhere else. This is especially true in this age of consolidations and large chain buyouts, which could bring a competitor with a similar name into a local market.


In the case of Mr. Hampton, it's likely he never considered the Mr. Tire chain, founded in Maryland, would show up in Ohio, let alone Columbus, or care that he used the name.


He also likely thought he was protected having registered the name with the state. Nor is he alone in this.


Several other independent dealerships around the country also operate as Mr. Tire. And think about how many businesses use the name “Discount Tires.”


So what should dealers do? Check to see that no trademarks or copyrights exist for your dealership's name or slogan—and think nationally, rather than locally or regionally.


Be proactive. If you discover another company operating under the same moniker, consider seeking a licensing agreement with that firm, if it has the name trademarked.


That's what Monro's Mr. Tire had to do years ago with Universal Cooperatives.


With the popularity of that name, perhaps the market's ripe for a “Ms. Tire?”

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