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'Ask Martha' feature might conflict with Stewart's Web site

January 08, 2005|by TARA REILLY

tarar@herald-mail.com

If you want to learn about housekeeping, cooking and gardening, you might want to "ASKMARTHA." If you want to learn about Washington County government, direct your questions to "Ask Martha."

What's in a name? So far, that answer is unclear.

Washington County Administrator Rodney Shoop asked the county's information technology staff at a meeting on Thursday whether the county could obtain the legal rights to its online feature, "Ask Martha."

Staff responded that the name already was owned - by Martha Stewart.

County officials, including some County Commissioners, chuckled at the statement, and then at least one person jokingly made the remark that Shoop's question should be forgotten.

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The "Ask Martha" feature was brought up while the commissioners and other county officials discussed the progress they've made on making the county Web site, www.washco-md.net, more informative to residents.

The feature, which was named after Martha Washington and bears a cartoon picture of the former first lady, allows residents to find answers to dozens of government questions, such as where county buildings are, where to get a dog license and where to get absentee ballots.

The county launched the feature over the summer as a companion piece to "e-George," which allows residents to find county ordinances and other information.

A search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office's Web site shows two registrations for the term - one as a trademark and the other as a service mark. However, the name is registered under both as "ASKMARTHA," different than how the county lists it on its Web site.

The county lists its feature as "Ask Martha." But marthastewart.com makes several references to a feature called "Ask Martha" - written as the county lists it - in which Martha Stewart answers questions on anything from freezing blueberries to choosing honeydew melons.

It's unclear whether the county's version violates Stewart's ownership rights to the name.

A spokeswoman for Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia on Friday returned a phone call from a reporter and left a message, but then could not be reached for comment when called back by the reporter.

"ASKMARTHA" is shown as being registered to Martha Stewart and Martha Stewart Living Omnimedia LLC.

The Patent and Trademark Office's Web site describes the goods and services being offered under the service mark name as "computer services, namely leasing access time to computer databases in the fields of homemaking, home care, cooking, housekeeping, decorating, gardening and entertaining."

The Web site lists the goods and services offered under the trademarked name as "syndicated newspaper columns featuring advice on cooking, home decorating, gardening, home making, home care, housekeeping and entertaining."

The Patent and Trademark Office's Web site defines a trademark as a "word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs, that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others."

It defines a service mark as the same as a trademark, "except that it identifies and distinguishes the source of a service rather than a product."

Commissioner James F. Kercheval said Friday that he didn't know whether the county would have to stop using the "Ask Martha" name.

"We're not marketing it," Kercheval said. "It's just words on the Web site."

Commissioner John C. Munson said he didn't think county staff meant any harm in using the name and that it isn't trying to sell a product. Changing the name wouldn't be a problem, he said. He said the county could change it to "Ask Martha Washington" or another name.

"It's not like it's a crisis if we had to take it down," Munson said. "Use something else in place of it. I guess our attorney can check into it."

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