San Antonio's Rockstar Turned Realtor®: The Lones Group and the Real Estate Zebra: Is the trademark worth more than your social capital?

The Lones Group and the Real Estate Zebra: Is the trademark worth more than your social capital?

Two Zebras, Same StripesThe Lones Group sues Realtor® Daniel Rothamel aka The Real Estate Zebra.

By now you've heard the news, aptly called The Stripes Heard Round the World in one of the many posts I've read over the last twenty four hours.  Real estate marketing company The Lones Group filed a complaint against Daniel "Real Estate Zebra" Rothamel for his use of zebra-related branding and marketing.

Like most real estate industry professionals, I'm not a lawyer, so I won't comment on the merit of the suit or opine over what constitutes trademark infringement.  Most agents who are posting about this are agreeing on one thing:

The Lones Group made a big mistake.

Daniel Rothamel is well known in the industry (particularly the real estate blogger subset) as the Real Estate Zebra.  His knowledge of blogging and social media have made him a speaker, mentor, and guide to many of us.  I relate to Daniel's branding because of our use of non-real estate items to help market ourselves and set us apart from others.  I have know him as the Zebra since the day we met online.  I think I even called him Zebra when I met him in real life.  Daniel Rothamel and Real Estate Zebra are synonymous in my book.

What The Lones Group complaint has done is shed light on a company for all the wrong reasons.  I had never heard of The Lones Group or its services, despite being the target market (a Realtor®) for them.  Perhaps they are excellent at what they do.  I won't ever know.  While Daniel's friendship matters to me, there's more to it than that.  I don't like lawsuits (in my rockstar days we were nearly sued to death at one point - preventing us from touring America for quite some time).  I don't like lawsuits that seem (from my view) to be aimed at garnering a few bucks.  Daniel works with consumers.  The Lones Group works with Realtors®.  Although one might argue they are in the same industry (real estate as a whole), they are doing two vastly different things.

While The Lones Group mounts their attack on the Real Estate Zebra, the social media world is abuzz with the news.  Too bad for The Lones Group that it has mostly been negative.  Knowing when your social capital is worth more than your trademark is the key in this one.  Even if they were to win the lawsuit against Daniel, would it be worth the damage to their social capital?  I know I won't be using their services anytime soon (in all fairness, I probably wouldn't anyway).  Now, when I hear the name The Lones Group, I will forever be reminded of the day my friend, Daniel Rothamel, was sued.  That's not an image I would want as a company.  They might think it's no big deal, as I am just one person, but this sentiment is being echoed over and over again across the internet.  Even a Google search for "lones group" is starting to be filled with posts like this one.  Would you want that as your only search result?  I wouldn't.

Two great posts written about the case:

"The Lones Group v. Rothamel: A case study in destroying your on-line reputation" - Jay Thompson (he's also building a list of blog posts, so this will be a great resource on the case as it goes on)

"The Lones Group Lesson: Destroying Your Brand Online" - Jeff Bernheisel (this is an excellent read and I think Jeff breaks down the case for "is it worth it" with great conviction)

And of course, I wrote a post over at RErockstar.com - "Lones Group sues Daniel “Real Estate Zebra” Rothamel"

You can see the entire complaint over at the Zebra Defense Fund (and make donations to Daniel's legal defense).

photo courtesy of mape_s

Need a #savethezebra badge for your ActiveRain blog? Get the code below and insert it in My Home>Settings>Blog Description.  I will also be posting a Wordpress widget code for the #savethezebra badge (with PayPal link for donations) over at RErockstar.com (feel free to use and distribute).

Save The Zebra - Zebra Defense Fund

HTML Code for ActiveRain Blogs - #savethezebra

<center><a href="http://www.zebradefensefund.com" title="Zebra Defense Fund" target="_blank"><img src="http://www.rerockstar.com/documents/zebra-defense-fund/save-the-zebra.jpg" title="Save The Zebra - Zebra Defense Fund" alt="#savethezebra"></a></center>

Cut and paste it into your blog sidebar.

Comment balloon 20 commentsMatt Stigliano • February 26 2011 10:27AM

Comments

Matt, thanks for posting.  I missed the breaking news.  I'll be interested in knowing how this plays out.  I'm wondering if branding needs to be registered as trademarks?

Posted by Pamela Seley, Residential Real Estate Agent serving SW RivCo CA (West Coast Realty Division) almost 7 years ago

I commented on her post that I thought that zebras had stripes to makes them blend in, not stand out, and thus this was an odd choice over which to throw one's self on one's sword. Furthermore, while her company may do good work, who in their right mind would take on a blogger over an ambiguous trademark identity?

I am trying to trademark a foul-tempered crocodile this weekend, and if I win I will lend it to the Lones lady who can use it instead of the sweet tempered zebra she was hoping for.

Posted by Leslie Ebersole, I help brokers build businesses they love. (Swanepoel T3 Group) almost 7 years ago

Great post Matt!  This is insane from my point of view.  The brand image that she will be left with is sad.  Even if she decided to drop it at... At this point Google will not quickly forget.

Posted by Sheri Moritz, Wake Co. NC REALTOR Apex to Raleigh to Wake Forest (Next Home Team) almost 7 years ago

Matt - social media underestimation - despite how they do legally "court of public opinion" is losing out big time here. Jay's post is now #5 for me on google search for their company name. Drew is at #7. For real estate 'mentors' I think they dropped the ball on this one about understanding social media and its power. Thanks for the post. It adds to the case against Lones and helps Daniel. Do you think they will be smart enough to drop it??

Posted by Craig Daniels, Technology Instructor/Project Consultant (Tech Training for You!) almost 7 years ago

Matt - excellent post, and I like Craig's comment above about "social media underestimation". The backlash from this poor decision will have far greater ramifications than anything Daniel could have done. They will be the equivalent of Horizon Realty in the internet world.

Posted by Monica Bourgeau, Abundance Coaching & Essential Oils (LifeOhm) almost 7 years ago

I think I might just let the comments speak for themselves on this post.  (We'll see if I can resist commenting.)

Posted by Matt Stigliano (Kimberly Howell Properties (210) 646-HOME) almost 7 years ago

Daniel has been posting as the Real Estate Zebra as far back as I can remember. He was a pioneer of blogging and has buildt his presence by providing value over time.

Odd that the Lones Group has decided to pursue him.  They aren't in the same business and they are basically going after a person who is widely respected and liked.  They may as well go after Santa Claus.

How dumb would that be?

kk

Posted by Kristal Kraft, Selling Metro Denver Real Estate - 303-589-2022 (The Berkshire Group Realtors) almost 7 years ago

#SavetheZebra!

Posted by Jeremy Blanton, Myrtle Beach REALTOR®- myrtlebeachhomesblog.com (Myrtle Beach Homes Blog) almost 7 years ago

Denise Lones is a great coach and marketeer, and while I have no personal opinion on her law suit, she also has used this logo for a number of years and is part of her marketing image.  I guess that there are two sides to every coin, and all have supporters.

May there be no winner or looser, just some good compromise..

Posted by Anonymous almost 7 years ago

Posts like this should be on page 1. Our entire community should stand in solidarity with a good man in our industry. 

Posted by J. Philip Faranda, Broker-Owner (J. Philip Faranda (J. Philip R.E. LLC) Westchester County NY) almost 7 years ago

Funny how the only comment in support of the Lones Group is posted as anonymous.

Posted by Tina Merritt, Virginia Real Estate (Nest Realty) almost 7 years ago

Anonymous, I looked at her website and her print media is quite nice.  There is no disagreement that she has good print media marketing skills but her logo looks nothing like Daniel's and maybe local agents think of her when they see zebras, but she doesn't have a national presence like she claims in the complaint.  I'm sorry, I AM a business owner and she is way off base with her lawsuit.  There are two marketing companies that use Zebras in their company imagry that are direct competitors that she isn't suing. 

Oh, and just in case you don't know there are 347 companies in the Trademark database that use Zebra as part of their trademark.  347.  Zebras are by no means exclusive to the Lones Group.  I don't know how any sane person can confuse the two.  Their branding is completely different and they are not competitors. Unfortunately, there is already a loser, and it is Denise Lones.

Posted by Melina Tomson, Principal Broker/Owner, M.S. (Tomson Burnham, llc Licensed in the State of Oregon) almost 7 years ago

She's a member of our community... She is an ActiveRain member.   I think everyone should be aware of this story....  maybe not necessarily to band together to burn a cross on Denise Lones' virtual front lawn but be aware of the lawsuit, but the backlash and the outcome are very interesting to me.

I would have thought two  local restaurants named after the owner, Jason... "Jason's" one of which  had been in existance for a number of years could have ignored or fought a new comer to our market, Jason's Diner? or Jason's Deli but I think he just changed the name of the restaurant when he got a C&D letter over using his name on his restaurant.

A well connected agent in our board of REALTORS® sent a cease and desist letter to friends of mine (members of the board as well)  a couple of years ago.  She claimed ownership of a phrase they were using as a url.  They had used the URL for years. They hired an attorney.  I believe they are using that url.

I have known Daniel as  The Real Estate Zebra online as long as I have known him. It seems from my point of view that he has every right to the title, but I would have thought Jason had every right to his name on his restaurants, but it cost him new signs, new menus and more.

If we got to vote I'd be voting Daniel and #savethezebra but I am not sure that's how exactly how it works.... or worked before social media.

Posted by Maureen McCabe, Columbus Ohio Real Estate (HER Realtors) almost 7 years ago

Maureen those are two local restaurants within the same city in the same business.  I totally get that that it would be potentially confusing to consumers.  This is a marketing company vs. a real estate agent (so two different industries) over using zebra imagery.  You can't trademark the word Zebra itself, as the trademark office clearly has 300+ entries.  If this case wins it is a sad day for companies because it means any real estate industry professional would have to see if any other real estate industry professional is using something they they want to use in a logo or branding imagery.

That would be a nightmare for business owners and I think flies in the face of trademarking.  Her logo is unique as is Daniels.  There is no confusion as they look nothing alike. I think there is so much backlash because they are totally different.

Posted by Melina Tomson, Principal Broker/Owner, M.S. (Tomson Burnham, llc Licensed in the State of Oregon) almost 7 years ago

Such a STUPID lawsuit and you are right...I WILL ALWAYS REMEMBER THIS LONE COMPANY BECAUSE OF THIS SUIT.

Talk about cutting your nose off to spite your face....big dummies.

Posted by Sussie Sutton, UTR TEXAS Realtors - Rep for buyers and sellers. (UTR Texas Realtors) almost 7 years ago

So if all 202,884 AR realtors and others send him $25 each will this be enough to help his legal fees? My calculator says he will get $5,072,100. Is this correct?

Posted by Sussie Sutton, UTR TEXAS Realtors - Rep for buyers and sellers. (UTR Texas Realtors) almost 7 years ago

I will be making my donation this week.   I believe in #savethezebra. I feel horrible for Daniel and his family.

Chris Brogan has picked up the story.  His Snoopy Barn example is kind of where I think this falls. Public opinion Daniel wins hands down.  Being a nice guy Daniel wins.  I vote for Daniel.

Melina wrote "This is a marketing company vs. a real estate agent (so two different industries)"  I get that Daniel is a real estate agent in Virginia.  Perhaps seeing  "My Agent Reboot 2011 tour begins in Seattle" coming down on you from the Real Estate Zebra website looks different to Denise Lones or her attorney than it does to those of us elsewhere. From their perspective it may look less like working with buyers and sellers in VA and more like "real estate training and marketing" From their perspective it may look more like "helping agents, brokers and developers dominate their markets"  which are her gig. She may really think it will confuse her prospective customers.    Of course Agent Reboot is Inman not Real Estate Zebra... but the Snoopy People, Peanuts?... Charles M. Schutlz inc. whatever are threatened... they send a C&D.

I get that the logos look nothing the same.  I don't know much about intellectual property, trademark  law but I don't think you can call dibs on a species and expect no one else to use it...  but you can try... I wish I had NOT been sworn to secrecy about a phrase that a local agent tried to protect.... If the cease and desist letter had worked... perhaps things would be different.I think only the attorneys would really profit.

Jason's is a high end restaurant.  Jason's Deli a franchise made a business decision to force a local man to go to great expense. People might end up at Jason's looking for deli sandwiches?  or show up at Jason's Deli overdressed?    Charley's Subs and O'Charlies (or is it Charlie's Subs and O'Charleys? )  hit our market at the same time...I did not try Papa John's Pizza for years because I thought it was Papa Joe's Pizza.  Confusion can happen. 

I probably will never eat at a Jason's Deli.       

Posted by Maureen McCabe, Columbus Ohio Real Estate (HER Realtors) almost 7 years ago

Maureen I read Chris' post as well. His Snoopy analogy is appropriate because Snoopy is a distinct and unique character. He was created from scratch and branded.  I agree they need to protect their trademark and they do go after people for that stuff. I know the author of Calvin and Hobbes went after everyone he could find to protect his trademarks. I don't have an issue with that at all.  Those are blantant rip offs.

Where this case seems to fall flat, is in the rip off department.  Their imagery isn't similar at all.  So then the issue for the courts becomes can two people within the real estate industy use the same animal for branding, when neither of them have it trademarked.

Posted by Melina Tomson, Principal Broker/Owner, M.S. (Tomson Burnham, llc Licensed in the State of Oregon) almost 7 years ago

The pen is mightier than the sword, maybe it will be  "The Lones stand alone"?

Posted by Sandra Mathewson, CRS,ABR,SRES,GRI,CDPE RE/MAX (RE/MAX 4000) almost 7 years ago

I realize that Denise is a member of Active Rain and looked at her blog and was underwhelmed not only with content but her logo.  I see her company name and think of the Lone Ranger for some reason and I think she will need someone like him to help her get out of this mess. 

Zebra's are animals...so is she trademarking the name Zebra?  What are the zoos going to do?  Pay her royalties??  Daniel is not even in the same state as Denise, right?

This suit makes no sense since as everyone has mentioned they are two separate industires albiet one relies on the one being sued for their potential clients.  Well, that just went by by. even if she is good at what she does she picked the wrong guy to sue.  Daniel at least has a common sense reason to use the Zebra reference since he is a referre.  She used it because she does her stuff in black and white?? OKey..dokey!  I guess most of us are in violation since we normally blog in those same colors.

I was also told to pick your battles carefully...I guess someone forgot to tell Denis this.

Posted by Evelyn Santiago, Managing Broker Heart Realty Group, Inc., Passionate About Real Estate & Our Clients! (Heart Realty Group, Inc..) almost 7 years ago

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