Question: has the word “Mormon” been copyrighted or trademarked in this country? If so, when? And who therefore holds the rights? I’ll be surprised if it’s the LDS church, since Mormon is not and never has been its official name. For a long time, in fact, the church tried to disavow it.
Yet now, asserting that “Mormon” is a brand, lawyers for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have been arguing that Mormon Match, an LDS dating website that tried to launch earlier this month, has no right to use the word in its name.*
The Utah-based church insists it has a claim on the terms “Mormon,” “LDS” and “Latter-day Saint” that supplants anyone else’s right to the terms, but people just keep using them how they want: Warren Jeffs is known as an FLDS leader; people who quit going to church still call themselves Mormon because it’s an accurate cultural descriptor even if it conveys nothing about their religious practice. The church may not like it, but its names are legitimately used as umbrella terms for groups and labels for individuals who don’t pay tithing to Salt Lake.
I talked to a lawyer about this, who said the first thing any judge would ask is: How is the church harmed by Mormon Match’s use of the word Mormon? The site isn’t claiming any official connection to the church; it’s catering to Mormons and addressing Mormon concerns rather than asserting that it’s endorsed by the leaders of the LDS church. How does providing a service to Mormons hurt the Mormon church? Especially since that service—helping faithful Mormons meet and marry other faithful Mormons—is in line with the church’s goals and objectives? The church has been happy to leave LDSSingles.com alone; why is it going after Mormon Match?
The church also objects to the fact that the company is using a picture of the Salt Lake temple on its website. But faithful Latter-day Saints are encouraged to use the temple as an image of aspiration. They’re told to display it in their homes, and many, many Mormons have an image of the temple carved on their tombstones. Will the church try to put a stop to that practice, by going after either the engravers or the families of the individuals who want that image on their graves?
The lawyer I spoke with gave me three examples to help explain issues related to the case.
One is that if you can prove harm, you can stop people from using certain names in certain ways—even if it’s the name on their birth certificate.
Say for instance your parents named you Jon Stewart, and all you’ve ever want to be is a comedian. You especially like political humor. You find a comedy club that likes your material and they begin advertising “Daily Shows featuring Jon Stewart.”
Even though the guy on Comedy Central was named Jonathan Stuart Leibowitz at birth, and even though you don’t claim to be on The Daily Show, Comedy Central and Stewart et al could take you to court and get you to stop using that name to promote your comedy, because doing so harms him by confusing people about who is performing what comedy.
Another is that the term Mormon has already been used to promote professional endeavors. In the 1930s, ‘40s and ‘50s, a race car driver from Utah named Ab Jenkins set records for speed racing in vehicles he called the “Mormon Meteor.” No one suggested that he was claiming that his car was endorsed by the LDS establishment.
Finally, officially registered trademarks can and do become so genericised that the original holder loses the right to control use of the name, as has happened to brands from aspirin to zippers.
While you can never predict exactly how lawsuits will go, the church’s position seems as ill-conceived as Tom Phillips’s fraud case against Thomas S. Monson, and about a dozen times more mean-spirited. You’d think they’d be happy that someone is helping faithful Mormons find each other and leave it at that.
A standard criticism of the church is that it’s more a business venture than a religion. Actions like this lend credibility to the claim, and you’d think the church wouldn’t want to make it seem any more valid.