Designers are in uproar and filing counter notices after print company Zazzle upheld a man's claim to own the pi symbol on clothing.
Paul Ingrisano, a pirate living in Brooklyn New York, filed a trademark under "Pi Productions" for a logo which consists of this freely available version of the pi symbol π from the Wikimedia website combined with a period (full stop). The conditions of the trademark specifically state that the trademark includes a period.
The Pirate Who Stole Pi
The trademark was granted in January 2014 and Ingrisano has recently made trademark infringement claims against a massive range of pi-related designs on print-on-demand websites including Zazzle and Cafepress.
|The Wikimedia Commons pi symbol|
At first Zazzle's Content Review team responded to their very angry designers and store keepers with generic emails, suggesting they file counter notices if they felt aggrieved.
But now Zazzle's latest response is that they are acting to protect Paul Ingrisano's "intellectual property" from "confusingly similar" designs as under the Lanham Act 1946 - including designs which do not even contain the pi symbol, but just the word "pi" in their design name.
|Pi Productions' "trademark"|
There are huge implications for designers and individuals across the planet. If Zazzle wash their hands and accept one man's claim to own the rights to all use of an ancient greek letter and generic mathematical symbol on clothing, it sets a precedent for other websites and companies to do the same.
The story bears similarity to the Sweet Pea trademark case where a $16 million lawsuit was filed against 52 small independent retailers, claiming the phrase "sweet pea" was a trademark. The defendants won the case, highlighting how trademark law can be abused.
Obviously companies like Zazzle have to take trademark infringement claims very seriously.
But if they really did take it seriously, wouldn't they realise how spurious and fraudulent claiming a mathematical symbol is?
These frauds want to dictate what you can wear
|Paul Ingrisano's next target: "I <3"|
Currently "published for opposition"
Even if Ingrisano had any basis to his Zazzle claim, he is not actually selling any products with this logo. The only one on the entire internet is this skull picture on his Etsy account. [Edit: Despite looking pretty thoroughly, I couldn't find Pi Productions' online store. Thanks to Artnet who found it with "a quick search".]
He is not a legitimate business concerned about his property - he is a pirate out to bully and disrupt legitimate designers.
But while Ingrisano is a pirate, Zazzle are in the position of having made a monumental screw-up - and are working their hardest to justify their mistake, instead of admitting they made one.
Minimum human judgement
Print-on-demand websites are bombarded by these fraudulent claims every day, and most are rightly dismissed. But sites like Zazzle are so terrified of lawsuits, they often automate their content review process. The Cafepress upload system will not even publish any designs referencing intellectual property like Lord Of The Rings or Star Wars.
This means real human judgement is reduced to a bare minimum. And with an army of frauds like Ingrisano firing constant claims, it was a matter of time before a company made a poor judgement out of fear - even despite the clear and obvious fact you cannot trademark a generic symbol or letter.
That company is Zazzle, and instead of admitting their error, they are helping Ingrisano steal pi.
Some furious designers have already filed counter-notices, which - if not responded to within 14 days - mean Zazzle must reinstate the designs.
And some are discussing class action lawsuit to recover lost earnings. Every day these legitimate designs are offline is lost income for dozens, even hundreds, of small independent designers on Zazzle.
Angry blog posts and tweets are appearing from people who are infuriated that Zazzle would bow down to to such an obviously unjustified trademark claim.
And it doesn't just affect designers - the implications affect scientists, mathematicians, classrooms, college fraternities.
With something as generic and as popular as the pi symbol - which has its own day on 14th March - it's quite possible this issue will hit sites like Reddit and io9 and I F**king Love Science, and from there up to the mainstream news channels. If it does, Zazzle will be shown to be very stupid, and there'll be a lot more angry people on the internet.
I'm a Zazzle designer. Yes, I would like my products reinstated, and it would be nice for any lost earnings to be compensated. But mainly, I just want Zazzle to admit they messed up, big-time.
What I want from Zazzle is an apology.
[Edit 30/05 10:00am AEST: It seems Zazzle have listened to reason and are reinstating products. Here's my update.]