Editor’s note: The Associated Press reported on April 12 that Wal-Mart had filed a federal lawsuit over a warped version of its logo appearing on T-shirts and a Web site. Wal-Mart's lawsuit, a countersuit to Charles Smith’s complaint, says Smith "seeks to cloak his illegal commercial activities under the mantle of the First Amendment." It asks the court to dismiss Smith's lawsuit and stop him from displaying or producing the logo. It also seeks undetermined damages.
ATLANTA — Comparing Wal-Mart’s business practices to the Holocaust has landed a metro-Atlanta activist-marketer in a legal dispute with the corporate behemoth.
Charles Smith started marketing “I (heart) Wal-ocaust” T-shirts last year, prompting Arkansas-based Wal-Mart to file a cease-and-desist order. In turn, Smith filed a lawsuit on March 6 in federal district court in Atlanta.
From Wal-Mart’s standpoint, Smith is engaging in trademark infringement. The company has threatened to sue him for damages if he continues to display the logos on his Web site and print them on products.
But Smith asserts it’s a free-speech issue. The 48-year-old computer repairman from Conyers, Ga., about 24 miles east of Atlanta, wants a judge to decide whether he can go forward with this business enterprise.
“He is not only infringing on Wal-Mart’s trademark, but he’s also making an offensive association between Wal-Mart and one of the greatest tragedies of the past century,” said company spokeswoman Sarah Clark. “We certainly respect the rights and opinions of others, but we also must protect our trademark, or we risk losing it.”
Smith said he first came up with his anti-Wal-Mart logo after conversations with a customer and an employee who both had “bad experiences” with the retailer.
“I was thinking of all of the destruction that has been taking place in the world in the last few years ... behind most of destruction lurk(s) giant corporations,” Smith wrote on his Web site, walocaust.com. “I had been reading articles about how the Holocaust was the mass destruction of human beings. ... I was thinking, what would be a word to use to express the destruction of human beings by corporations.”
If the court sides with Smith, he’ll use any profits to pay his legal fees and for continued production of the “Wal-ocaust” products, with any leftovers “donated to assist others who are suffering oppression by Wal-Mart or working to oppose its misdeeds,” according to the court filing.
This is the latest salvo in an increasingly noisy battle between Wal-Mart and its critics, to whom the company — the world’s largest retailer — epitomizes a host of corporate sins.
Smith designed his first logo in July and sent it to CafePress, which runs an online marketplace and will print and sell customers’ T-shirt designs. One shirt, with “Wal-ocaust” printed above an eagle and a smiley face, sold on Nov. 16, netting Smith $5.10.
In December Wal-Mart sent a letter to Smith, asserting ownership of its trademarks, and demanded he discontinue selling the products, according to the court filing. A similar letter was sent to CafePress, which pulled the shirts from its site. Smith, however, continued to advertise them on his own Web site. And he retained an attorney from Ralph Nader’s Public Citizen Litigation Group.
Smith agrees the “Wal-ocaust” term is “in bad taste,” he said. “But I guess I gotta do something. ... When it comes to freedom of speech, you can’t let this stuff go.”