Montana Cowboy Clothiers Collide With Haute Couture

Montana goat ranchers Tom and Ann Dooling never intended to touch off an international dispute that would echo across the Atlantic and into the fashion salons of Paris.

In fact, all they wanted to do was sell a few hand-knit cashmere sweaters and coats under their home-spun label, Montana Knits.

But that was before lawyers for French fashion designer Claude Montana dispatched a letter to the US Patent and Trademark Office asking for exclusive control over the name of the state in which the Doolings live. Thus began a war over words, or, in this case, geography.

For several years, Claude Montana's law firm, New York-based Kuhn and Muller, has succeeded in forcing local companies to take "Montana" out of their names. But then the Doolings decided to battle what they consider corporate imperialism.

"We are not going to let him bully us the same way he has bullied other people," Ann Dooling says. "This is a David versus Goliath issue, and we intend to fight for the name of our state, letting the legal chips fall where they may."

Rallying behind the Doolings is the State of Montana, which is seeking a ruling from the Patent and Trademark Office on behalf of 55 companies that use Montana as part of their registered trademark and another 5,700 that have Montana in their name. A decision is expected by summer.

Sen. Conrad Burns (R) of Montana also plans to introduce legislation in Congress limiting the monopolization of geographic names by private companies.

Claude Montana's representatives didn't return phone calls. But in protests filed with the Patent Office, they assert that businesses using the name Montana would "cause confusion" or "deceive" consumers.

"That's hogwash," the Doolings say. Claude Montana sells products ranging from clothing and shoes to cosmetics and jewelry, but he doesn't sell cashmere.

The Doolings are not alone in their indignation. When fellow Montanan Judy McFarlane went into the Western clothing business a few years ago, the housewife and erstwhile entrepreneur never dreamed the wares she sold - faded blue jeans, weathered cowboy boots, and sweat-stained ten-gallon hats - would be mistaken as competitive haute couture.

Ms. McFarlane's firm, Montana Broke, literally bought clothing off the backs of real cowboys and, for a modest markup, sold the items replete with a sartorial pedigree. Among her customers were NBC News anchor Tom Brokaw, whose wife bought him a Montana Broke cowboy hat, and rock star Jon Bon Jovi, who sprang for a pair of wrangler-worn blue jeans.

"Honest..., I didn't do it for the money," McFarlane says. "I did it because it was fun to meet the fellas and they seemed to enjoy it, too - that someone put value in them just for being a cowboy."

THEN, however, a letter arrived from the Frenchman's attorneys informing McFarlane to stop using her company name or face an expensive legal battle.

"I didn't know whether I should have been flattered the mighty Claude Montana viewed me as a rival to his empire, or whether I should have been angry that he was arrogant enough to believe he owns the word 'Montana' and nobody else can use it," McFarlane says. She was so soured by Montana's "strong-arm tactics" she went out of business rather than surrender.

"The last time I checked, 'Montana' had been the name of a state for over 100 years," she says. "Is it possible that you can own a trademark for a common word?"

Apparently, the answer is a qualified no. "It's a general rule that ... you cannot obtain an exclusive trademark that is geographically descriptive or one that involves a surname," says Richard Conover, a patent and trademark attorney in Bozeman, Mont. "In fact, if Mr. Montana thinks he can preclude other people from using the name Montana, his own trademark could be subject to cancellation."

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