The International Trademark Association, or INTA (which calls itself “the I-N-T-A” on INTA TV… interesting branding choice there) is important. Most of the people and institutions involved in brands and brand protection are members or affiliates; many (though not all) of the most accomplished lawyers involved in trademark enforcement are active or leaders in INTA. People in the field talk about what happens at the annual meeting. INTA is influential within the practice and as an institution. And the annual meeting is a great event in most respects.
This year’s meeting in Washington, DC was no exception. The INTA professional staff and attorney leadership are dedicated, thoughtful and professional. The convention center in DC is attractive, modern, technologically current, very easy to get around, and close to most hotels. There was great WiFi in the hall, lots of free terminals and many other fine amenities. Oh, sure, I will nitpick later, because there are some frustrations that seem completely avoidable. But this was a very good conference, and it included a lot of bona fide intellectual engagement about critical and often controversial issues. At times.
Beyond this, however, the substance: INTA is at a crossroads. It often seems to be. But this year elements and events within INTA made a number of stark paradoxes stand out. The fault lines may be categorized as follows:
- Identity: Is INTA, which has a lobbying arm — INTA PAC — itself something more than a lobby, or an advocacy organization? Is it less than a bar association or a learned society? In short, do ideas matter?
- Mission: Even if the answer to the last question is, “No, we protect the rights of trademark holders, we don’t debate them” — i.e., even if overreaching is not of concern — how does such a mission square with the importance of trademark for new entrants into the world of commerce, whose use and development of brands risks being crowded out by established stakeholders?
- Ideology: Another possibility, neither irrational or evil, is that INTA is indeed designed to guard the prerogatives of the corporate world, not to encourage entrepreneurs, regardless of the relationship of the latter to trademarks.
But consider this: In 2001, Meg Whitman, then-CEO of then-trademark-bÃªte noir eBay, was the keynote speaker at INTA‘s annual meeting. [UPDATE: I alluded to the eBay-Google parallel a while ago.] What she said didn’t warn the cockles of any hearts, but she got the chance to say it and was respectfully whisked away by security.
In contrast, in 2012, an entire INTA panel premised on bashing the bÃªte noir of the moment — Google — in connection with the Rosetta Stone litigation, closed out the Google point of view entirely. The result was the awkward moment described here (about which, more to come).
Well, eBay’s a nice company, but — Google? We all work for Google, or for Facebook, which stands in similar shoes in terms of coloring outside the lines of standard INT-oid thinking about trademarks. So: if INTA’s ideology is to be “corporatist,” how exactly is “disrespecting” the likes of Google going to go?
- Internal Culture: I don’t know if INTA was always incestuous, but it sure is now. These days, about ten thousand trademark attorneys from around the world attend INTA’s annual meeting. The vast majority of them speak good English. Outside of the ranks of attendees and members are countless experienced practitioners, thinkers and experts.
Yet the annual meeting features many of the same speakers, not only year after year but even within a given year’s program — many of whom hardly need their resumes burnished at this point, even if that was ever a good enough reason for this annoying “favorite son” practice. Sour grapes? Not entirely. This matters, in fact, because in many respects, the panel compositions both inform and reveal some of the answers to the first three questions.
We’re going to talk about these things for a few days. There’s a lot to talk about.