When trademark law and goats run amok

Intellectual property law (IP) should protect businesses, but too often can be used to stifle the spread of ideas.

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    Al Johnson's Swedish Restaurant in Sister Bay, Door County, Wis., has goats that munch on the grass-covered roof, as seen in this file photo from July, 2002. Current owner Lars Johnson recently sued a Georgia restaurant that put goats and sod on its own roof. Where is the line between a widespread acceptance of an idea whose time has come, and theft of someone else's intellectual property?
    Tom Uhlenbrock / MCT / Newscom / File
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Here’s a good case of the pernicious, insidious effects of IP on business. As noted in What’s Up On the Roof? Goats! (video below), Al Johnson back in 1973 added a Scandinavian-style sod roof and goats grazing on it, to Al Johnson’s Swedish Restaurant in Wisconsin. This was a brilliant entrepreneurial decision: the goats were very popular–the slogan became “Come for the goats–stay for the food.” So naturally, as success on the market leads to emulation (see Tucker & Kinsella, “Goods, Scarce and Nonscarce”), Tiger Mountain Markets, a restaurant in Georgia, decided to put goats on its roof too. Instead of this local Wisconsin restaurant being proud of its influence, or at least ignoring it and concentrating on providing a good service to its customers, its current owner Lars Johnson bought into the pernicious IP mentality and filed a lawsuit against the Georgia restaurant. They eventually settled, with Tiger Mountain Market paying an annual fee to Al Johnson’s for the right to have goats on their own roof. How magnanimous of Al Johnson’s, to let Tiger Mountain use their own property as they see fit!

The WSJ reporter totally misses the boat, referring to Tiger Mountain’s decision to use goats on its roof as trying to “horn in on the roof-goat angle”–such a negative, loaded way of describing peaceful, productive, natural emulation on the market. The reporter concludes that, once Al Johnson’s was able to settle with Tiger Mountain and extort money from them, “that means Lars Johnson can worry less about trademark infringement, and more about serious goat-related issues, like escape attempts.” Notice how this portrays poor Lars Johnson as a victim, sitting up “worrying about” trademark infringement. When instead, the victim here was innocent Tiger Mountain; Lars Johnson didn’t have to worry about what Tiger Mountain was doing in Georgia; he could have minded his own business and focused on his job: providing a good service to customers in search of profit.

This is yet another case of how IP law literally violates the bodily or property rights of others–I list other examples of how IP law leads to censorship, book banning, or actual limitations on bodily freedom (such as the right to sing a song or take a job) in The Patent, Copyright, Trademark, and Trade Secret Horror Files.

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