September 2019. Arguments occur in the best families, but they don’t often concern the use of the family surname. Unfortunately, that’s what’s happened with the Sink family firm in South Carolina, where Sink Sr and Sink Jr were locked in a bitter dispute over the use of the Sink name for their respective legal practices.
George Sink P.A. Injury Lawyers: once the shared legal practice of father and son
Until recently, Mr Sink Sr and his son happily ran their office together under the name George Sink P.A. Injury Lawyers. But when their collaboration ended in 2018, Sink Jr started up his own legal practice under the name George Sink II. Sink Sr didn’t approve.
Can George Sink Jr call his practice George Sink II or is that confusing?
According to Sink Sr, doing so would cause confusion. Worse still, Sink Jr was generally referred to by his nickname Ted, but now suddenly decided to use his given name of George as the name for his firm. George Sink Sr duly filed a civil suit against his son, basing his claim on his trademark rights to the name George Sink P.A. Injury Lawyers.
Sink Jr loses
A Federal Court recently pronounced on the dispute, and the result was a bitter pill for Sink Jr. to swallow. He was barred from using the name George Sink for his practice, including on his website, emails and social media. ‘The mere fact that it is George Sink Jr’s given name does not automatically shield him from allegations of infringement,’ the Court ruled, concluding that it would be highly confusing if there were two legal practices called George Sink.
The Court did however slightly relativise its pronouncement by adding that George Sink Jr was of course not barred from practicing law under his birth name, but in advertising his legal services he must do more to differentiate himself from his father’s practice. Which means no board outside his practice saying “George Sink”.
Theo Philips Electronics
The ruling shouldn’t really come as a surprise. The outcome would probably have been the same in the Netherlands. A person will obviously never be barred from using their own name, but pre-existing rights acquired by third parties means you can be limited in using it for commercial ends if it leads to confusion. After all, if your name was Theo Philips you couldn’t call your electronics outlet Theo Philips Electronics. But answering the phone in your own electronics outlet with the words “Theo Philips here” is fine.