A 2009 Witch Hunt

I started this VBT - Writers on the Move Viewpoint topic thinking I would discuss the pros and cons of copywriting. To refresh my memory I went back to the post I was basing my article on and decided to read most of the 673 comments.

What an eye opener! The original post is on the site zenhabits and posted by Leo Babauta, sometime in April 2009. 

The article began: “Today I received an email from the lawyers of author Susan Jeffers, PhD., notifying me that I’d infringed on her trademark by inadvertently using the phrase “feel the fear and do it anyway” in my post last week, A Guide to Beating the Fears That Hold You Back […] Her lawyers asked me to insert the (R) symbol after the phrase, in my post, and add this sentence: “This is the registered trademark of Susan Jeffers, Ph.D. and is used with her permission.”

Leo Babauta went on to write about the horrors of infringing on a person’s right to use the English language and stated that he would not comply with the letter’s request. His, obviously, loyal followers quickly jumped on the bandwagon and went so far as to post false reviews on Ms. Jeffers Amazon page. As a direct result, her Amazon ratings dropped.

What’s so bizarre is that most of the commenters had no idea what they were talking about, yet they still took vicious action. One commenter stated that Ms. Jeffers husband is her lawyer, which another commenter explained was not true. It was also brought to light that the letter Mr. Babauta received was not from a lawyer, but was simply a trademark letter. The majority of the commenters accused Ms. Jeffers of being greedy and pledged not to buy any of her books. A couple of commenters asked Mr. Babauta to post the letter for clarification, claiming that he used the phrase and letter as a ploy to drive traffic to his site which is monetized.

Leo Babauta’s site blogs about things similar to Ms. Jeffers books and teachings, such as overcoming fear and self-help, so what was the big deal in giving her credit for the phrase? He states in his article that he was taking a stand against copywriting and trademarks, but did he have to use Susan Jeffers name to make his stand? Mr. Babauta seems to be a savvy blogger; his philosophy of free speech and sharing is a wonderful concept, but there are better ways of promoting it. Only Mr. Babauta knows what his true motives were. Unfortunately, whether this post was simply venting or contrived, Ms. Jeffers paid a price.

A 2009 witch hunt was activated by one post. The power of the internet is actually frightening. It taught me a valuable lesson: pause, think and even research before you write. The internet can be an amazing source of knowledge and help, but it can also be like a tidal wave bringing irreversible damage along with it.

So, my questions are:

1. What are your thoughts on giving credit where it’s due?
2. Are trademarks and copywriting out of control?

Please let me know what you think!

To read the ZenHabits post, go to:
Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway



Gayle said...

Hi, Karen:

Having been the victim of a witch hunt myself, I understand what you're going through. Who even knew that phrase was copyrighted?! (Now I'm wondering if "Who even knew that phrase was copyrighted?" is copyrighted, and I'll have to take down this comment.) ;-)

Vivian Zabel said...

I wonder, too, how a person would know something was registered. If I come up with an idea or phrase on my own and use it, does that mean I need to research everything I write to be sure it isn't registered?

Which was the witch being hunted? Either one could be, the blogger or the author.

Karen Cioffi said...

Trademarking our language is such a slippery slope, but if the gov't deemed it fitting to allow Susan to trademark, shouldn't she have a right to be given credit?

Vivian, Susan Jeffers was the victim here. Leo's followers hunted her down on Amazon and SLAMMED her!

Vivian Zabel said...

Karen, I'm sorry, but I find "if the gov't deemed it fitting to allow Susan to trademark, shouldn't she have a right to be given credit?" funny. This is the same government that thinks it fitting to have the CPSIA.

Again, the question I have is must we do a complete internet search for every combination of words we might use?

Karen Cioffi said...

From what I gathered from some of the comments on Leo's blog is that he received a standard TM letter. Whoever is taking care of business for Ms. Jeffers probably has a Google Alert on the phrase. This is just a way of letting the gov't know that he/she is trying to protect the TM. It's just a standard practice for TMs.

I personally don't think anyone is required to check on using common phrases, but if you should stumble on one that has been tm'd you might get a TM letter.

If you're curious you can go to:

On the left sidebar just click on Trademarks and then enter your search.


Nancy Famolari said...

How would anyone know a phrase was copy-righted. I'm with Vivian -- we all need phrases and a good lawyer!

Karen Cioffi said...

I really should have listed 3 questions. Were Leo's actions in naming Ms. Jeffers and creating such a witch hunt appropriate?


Margaret Fieland said...

I don't think that common phrases should be trademarkable, and certainly not in the context of common speech. I don't think that Leo's actions in simply naming Ms. Jeffers was a witch hunt -- it certainly brought to light an interesting issue -- but I do think that creating a with hunt was *not* appropriate.

Unknown said...

I agree with everyone! I agree we should be able to copyright a phrase that portrays our main philosophy. (something people will immediately recognize as ours) So I purpose to give credit when I site an exact quote.

BUT, I don't think we should have to research everything we write. I've created some things and then found that other people had already done the same thing.

HOWEVER, to quote my mother, "two wrongs don't make a right." We should never participate in demonizing someone for their opinions or their right to protect a copyright.

H.C.Paye said...

First I have to say, WHAT A MESS!!!! lol, I mean, it's just a blog! People say, "feel the fear and do it anyways," without having to say, "This is a regestered trademark of Susan Jeffers, Ph.D. and is used with her permission." I mean seriously! What next? People won't be able to say "Boo-yah"?! It's just crazy!

But, then again, it is necessary to hold a copy right. I mean, it's the author's hard work. It is definitely wrong that Leo Babauta went and lowered Ms. Jeffers Amazon page. People think that they can do whatever they want because they are hiding behind a computer.

So, I say, yes for copyrights and trademarks, no for rude people like Leo.

Karen Cioffi said...

Thanks, All, for stopping by. I feel if a person creates an original grouping of words for their specific teachings or brand, they have a right to be recognized for it with a simple acknowledgment. Unless you are trying to profit from someone's original idea there should not be any legal action involved which I'm pretty sure is the case.

But, i also think the gov't and writers/companies in general need to be careful of taking trademarks too far.

Liana said...

I've learned a few things I did not know from this discussion. But I think that common phrases shouldn't have a problem. And I agree with the last comment of Karen's. Thanks for all that information.