NEW YORK (Reuters) - One letter can make all the difference.
A federal judge rejected Beyoncé’s request for a permanent injunction to stop a Texas company catering to people engaged to be married from selling dozens of shirts, tank tops, hoodies and other items bearing the name “Feyoncé.”
The pop superstar complained in a lawsuit brought in April 2016 that Feyonce Inc’s sale of knockoffs infringed her trademark rights and would confuse consumers.
But in a decision issued on Monday, U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan in Manhattan said San Antonio-based Feyonce’s choice to capitalize off the “exceedingly famous” Beyoncé trademark did not mean confusion would follow.
“A rational jury might or might not conclude that the pun here is sufficient to dispel any confusion among the purchasing public,” she wrote.
Lawyers for Beyoncé did not immediately respond to requests for comment, nor did the people behind Feyoncé, Andre Maurice and Leana Lopez, who represented themselves.
Nathan said that by replacing the “B” in Beyoncé with an “F,” the defendants created a mark that sounds like “fiancé,” their core customer, in a “play on words” that could dispel confusion.
One of the Feyoncé items in dispute was a mug with the phrase “he put a ring on it,” which Beyoncé said was intended to recall the lyrics of her song “Single Ladies.”
The judge found the dispute similar to a 1993 case where the federal appeals court in Chicago ruled against Nike Inc over apparel from Just Did It Enterprises that bore a “swoosh” logo and the word “Mike.”
Consumers, that court found, might get the point after an initial look.
“Many purchasers of Feyoncé products are, in fact, engaged, just as many Mike product purchasers were named Mike,” Nathan wrote. “Viewed in the light most favourable to defendants, this evidence suggests that consumers are understanding the pun, rather than confusing the brands.”
Nathan ordered both sides to discuss a possible settlement and trial dates, and scheduled a Nov. 1 status conference. Her decision is dated Sept. 30.
Beyonce, 37, is married to rapper Jay Z, and has won Grammy awards as a solo artist and with Destiny’s Child.
The case is Knowles-Carter et al v. Maurice et al, U.S. District Court, Southern District of New York, No. 16-02532.
Reporting by Jonathan Stempel in New York; Editing by Steve Orlofsky