ripped off the Village Voice and she knows it. When the 51-year-old started
her Hollywood-area community newspaper in 1998, she lifted the blue and white
rectangular design of the Voice logo and simply replaced "Village"
with "Beachwood," her L.A. suburb best known for the filming of Invasion
of the Body Snatchers. She thought it would be cute if her little paper
looked like the big "Voice" back east.
she received a classic cease-and-desist letter from the law offices of Kay &
Boose in January 2003, warning that the "horizontal and vertical interplay"
in her logo was too similar to that of its famous Manhattan client, she didn’t
deny it. Still, Reichenbach thought the letter from Village Voice Media Inc.
lawyer Marcia B. Paul was a little heavy-handed. Her volunteer-staffed journal
publishes four times a year and has a circulation of 5000–almost nothing
compared to the Voice’s 250,000 issues per week. And Reichenbach
resented the accusation that the name of her Beachwood Canyon community rag
was "a calculated attempt to confuse" readers about the paper’s
ties to the Village Voice, three time zones away. Together with changing
the logo, the Voice Media lawyer strongly urged Reichenbach to drop the article
"the" from The Beachwood Voice.
did both. The new design, unveiled in Beachwood Voice’s just-released
24-page spring issue, looks nothing like the block logo of the Village Voice.
Rather, it resembles the wood-carved welcome sign in front of a particularly
unfortunate Southern Californian planned community, with a stretched-out "Beachwood"
atop a flowery cursive "Voice" set against light violet. Voice Media
lawyers received the logo long before its debut.
New York office of Kay & Boose soon decided the logo change wasn’t
enough. On Feb. 28, Reichenbach’s lawyer in Los Angeles received a second,
more pugnacious letter informing her that unless the word "Voice"
was dropped from the name, the Beachwood paper "proceeds at its peril."
Why is the
Village Voice Media conglomerate telling a tiny publication 3000 miles from
New York that it lacks the legal right to be the titular "voice" of
its community? Do they honestly think that Beachwood Voice is causing
"confusion in the marketplace"?
that the country’s biggest alternative weekly is the only legitimate "voice"
in the country would be a good joke if the Voice legal teams were smiling. But
they’re not. In a publishing version of the preemptive strike doctrine,
Village Voice Media is scouring the country for little "voices" to
snuff out before they can "threaten" their Goldman Sachs-backed brand
name and reputation. They apparently fear that columns such as "Doggie
Owner Crime Blotter," as found in the current issue of Beachwood Voice,
may be too easily confused with Village Voice fare such as "La Dolce
the other "voices" of the world is going to take Voice Media and friends
a long time, no matter how deep their gilded alternative pockets. The list of
English-language publications using the word "voice" in their titles
continues to grow, and includes such nascent alt-weekly empires as the Grenadian
Voice, the Irish Voice and the Warsaw Voice, among hundreds
if not thousands of others. The official newsletter of Maybee Village, MI (population
500), even has the temerity to insubordinately sport the exact title of the
Village Voice. Then there is the community website of Warwick, NY, menacingly
called the Voice of the Village.
hasn’t been contacted by Voice Media legal teams yet, but perhaps
they should be on guard. Kay & Boose did not return phone calls for this
article, and so could not answer questions about who was next in line for harassment.
most recent successful intimidation of smaller papers came in 1998, when then-owners
Stern Publishing pulled a hat-trick and bullied three minor-market weeklies
into dropping "voice" from their names. The Bloomington
Voice was rechristened the Bloomington Independent, the Tacoma
Voice–the longest holdout among the three–eventually agreed to
become the Tacoma Reporter. The Dayton Voice became the Dayton
Impact Weekly, and is now the Dayton City Paper (somehow avoiding
threats by the nation’s five other Association of Alternative Newspapers-listed
to Matt Youngmark, editor of the Tacoma Reporter, lawyers for Stern Publishing
pulled the same piecemeal intimidation tactics with his old Voice as
are currently being plied against Beachwood Voice. "We changed the
design when they told us to, and they even okayed the new logo," he says.
"Then they said they wanted a name change too. Our first response was to
design a Village Voice-style logo that said ‘Go Fuck Yourself,’
but in the end we settled."
agreed to reimburse Youngmark for the cost of new promotional material and distribution
would have liked to fight them," says Youngmark, who had just launched
his biweekly Voice when the Stern Group’s lawyers contacted him.
"And I’d like to see someone else fight them now, because I don’t
think they have a leg to stand on. I mean, how many Reporters and Times
the same question the owners of the Cape Cod Voice asked in the summer
of 2002, when Village Voice Media, represented by the Charlotte, NC law firm
of Moore & Van Allen, tried to frighten them out of their new name. The
seaside community magazine received the familiar threatening letter after their
fifth issue, claiming that the word "voice" was a federally registered
trademark and that any use of it was "likely to cause mistake or confusion"
between the two publications.
you are no doubt aware," the letter imperiously asserted, "The
Village Voice is a nationally and internationally known newspaper…[that]
currently enjoy[s] widespread recognition, goodwill and fame."
ends with the following threat, which neatly captures the feel of Ribbentrop’s
generous offer to Czechoslovakia at Munich:
hope to resolve this matter amicably, and, if you respond promptly, are willing
to work with you in an effort to minimize any disruption to your company’s
business. Our previous experience with the Bloomington Voice, Dayton
Voice and Tacoma Voice newspapers… indicates that we can accomplish
was not shared by the owners of the Cape Cod Voice. They saw the threat
as pompous, illegal bullying, and decided to call Voice Media’s bluff.
They enlisted the Boston law firm of Hill & Barlow to argue their case and
made the dispute public. In its parry to the Voice’s attack, the
counsel for the Massachusetts-based Voice pointed out the obvious differences
in style and content between the two publications: You write about New York
prostitutes, we write about Cape Cod lobstermen; you are free, we cost a dollar;
you are weekly, we are biweekly. Most crucially, they argued, the profusion
of papers, journals and magazines with the word "voice" in their titles
"suggests that your client’s ‘Voice’ mark suffers from a
profound lack of distinctiveness."
lawyers have yet to respond to the challenge, which would seem to indicate that
Village Voice Media knows their case to be bogus. "Their strategy seems
to be to pick the smallest and the weakest links in a long chain of ‘voice’
publications," says Seth Rolbein, editor and publisher of the Cape Cod
Voice. "This doesn’t say much about the ethical or legal strength
of their argument."
publisher who stood up is Jamie Moses. Voice company lawyers successfully forced
his Buffalo, NY, Art Voice to change its logo in 1991, when it had a
readership of 10,000. When his circulation grew and they returned six years
later ordering him to change the name, he wasn’t having it.
the time other papers [in Dayton, Bloomington and Tacoma] were caving in to
the Voice," he says. "But they just didn’t have the balls
or the backbone to resist. I had too much invested in my brand name to just
give it up. I haven’t heard from them since."
Under current trademark copyright laws, a mark such as "voice" must have a common
and logical connection to the product–in this case, community newspapers–to
be considered "generic." Judging from the number of periodicals employing
the word "voice," it would seem to meet this test, and thus Voice
Media’s claim to enjoy sole rights at the exclusion of other newspapers
is suspect at best.
are standard terms that are used to describe newspapers," says Wendy Seltzer,
a copyright expert with the Electronic Frontier Foundation. "And none of
these terms can be monopolized by a single entity. [Voice Media] is trying to
use trademark registration beyond where it logically applies."
Village Voice Media claim that other Voice publications are diluting
their brand or making it generic, because it was already generic when Norman
Mailer chose it as the name of the newborn paper in 1955. The pile of papers
with Voice in their title is deep and varied, and at least one New York
area paper–the Voice, published by the Jewish Federation of Camden
County–beat the Village Voice to the trademark punch by 17 years.
of course an ethical backdrop to all this, one made all the richer by the ideological
baggage still dragging behind the Village Voice name. One among many
Cape Cod residents who leapt to the Cape Cod Voice’s defense was
Mailer himself, who currently lives and writes in the artist enclave of Provincetown.
The tactics of Village Voice Media, he wrote, are "enough to make one retch.
It’s monstrous. It violates everything The Village Voice stood for
over the decades."
Voice columnist Nat Hentoff agrees. "I think these attacks are ridiculous,"
the civil liberties activist told New York Press. "It’s embarrassing
for the Village Voice, which was founded in the name of free speech,
to be strong-arming these little papers. Tell me, is the word ‘newspaper’
Village Voice Media’s seemingly out-of-character bullying isn’t really
out of character at all. The Village Voice and its sister papers may
be well-known for liberal politics, but this is also the age of liberal empire.
Village Voice Media, Inc. is now an alternative newspaper octopus, and it aggressively
protects and seeks to expand its turf. This is especially true with regard to
its flagship product and most Michael Jordan-like brand name, the Village
Voice. Village Voice Media may be topped by veterans of the old-school alternative
press, but it’s now a business machine at heart, and lives according to
the logic of the beast–insufferable corporate lawyers, scare tactics, activities
that lead to antitrust investigations, all of it.
mourn the days when the Voice represented the values and practices of
local, progressive, independent publishing, but they aren’t coming back.
As a paranoid, expansionist empire with far-flung investments, Village Voice
Media will continue to view any paper that pops up in the U.S. as a possible
competitor. This is true even when the threat of real competition (or "confusion
in the marketplace") is comical, as in the case of the well-intentioned
yet amateurish Beachwood Voice and Voice Media’s west-coast mothership
original alternative newspaper has grown into something of a straw bogeyman,
it isn’t one that should unduly frighten other "voices" in America’s
publishing wilderness. The lesson of the Cape Cod Voice is that papers
can successfully tell thuggish Voice lawyers to go screw themselves and live
to brag about it. When papers using the word "voice" in their titles
have punched the Village Voice Media shark on its nose, it has swam away more
as Voice Media lawyers no doubt continue to size up new targets, Fran Reichenbach
is still weighing her options in Beachwood Canyon. "I’m a fighter,"
she says. "I don’t have much money, but the people [here] are behind
my paper. They’re horrified by the Village Voice’s behavior."
Is she at
least flattered that Village Voice Media singled out her little project from
all of the other "voices" in the country?
still hard to grasp their perception of us as competition. If we changed our
name to the Beachwood Times, would we pose a threat to the New York
a good question, and a funny one. Just don’t tell that to the Voice legal
team at Kay & Boose. Their client is very powerful and very famous. According
to their sales kit, they’ve even won a Pulitzer.