A recent AP story reported on the David-and-Goliath battle between a Vermont folk artist and the Chick-fil-A restaurant chain. The dispute is over Bo Muller-Moore’s use of the slogan “Eat More Kale,” which the Chick-fil-A says is just too darned close to their trademark “eat mor chikin” [sic]. The company’s lawyer has told Muller-Moore that his kale slogan “is likely to cause confusion of the public and dilutes the distinctiveness of Chick-fil-A’s intellectual property and diminishes its value.” The company apparently failed to comment as to what sorts of idiots they think are likely to confuse kale with chicken.
OK, so let’s get the obvious out of the way: yes, intellectual property is important and firms have every right zealously to protect their brand and its accompanying slogans.
But that’s quite different from bullying an entrepreneur who poses no imaginable threat.
This kind of behaviour is more than a simple wrong being committed against a single entrepreneur, a mere victimization of David by Goliath’s over-zealous lawyers. This is a matter of socially irresponsible behaviour.
As I’ve argued frequently on this blog, we ought to reserve the term “corporate social responsibility” to refer to obligations that a company owes to society at large, in some sense, rather than responsibilities it owes to particular individuals. And social responsibilities are precisely what Chick-fil-A is violating here.
In particular, Chick-fil-A is violating two different social responsibilities, here.
The first is the responsibility not to waste the legal system’s time. If Muller-Moore fights this in court, as he says he will, Chick-fil-A will be needlessly clogging up an already-overburdened legal system.
The second is the responsibility, albeit a weaker one, not to contribute to a pattern of overzealous—some would say frivolous—use of lawyers to scare smaller businesses. In acting this way, Chick-fil-A is setting an example for other companies, and contributing to an overall pattern that is liable to have a chilling effect on free speech and entrepreneurship.
Such legal actions, in other words, constitute a kind of pollution, a negative externality imposed on people not directly involved. Now of course in legal actions as in pollution, some effect on third parties is unavoidable and ethically permissible. But a socially responsible company at the very least takes note of such externalities, endeavours to keep them to a minimum, and ensures that they are proportionate to the permissible goals they are trying to achieve.