What started as a favor by a Vermont folk artist for a farmer is now a nationally known kerfuffle involving the United States government and a multibillion-dollar fast-food chain.
It started in 2001. While selling his homemade silkscreened T-shirts at the farmers market, Bo Muller-Moore’s farmer friend, Paul, asked the artist if he could bring him and his family shirts to wear at the following week’s market. “Eat More Kale” is what farmer Paul wanted the shirts to say, and Bo obliged. Muller-Moore says neither he nor farmer Paul had heard of Chick-fil-A’s marketing slogan, “Eat Mor Chikin.”
Folks at the market began to see farmer Paul and his family wearing their “Eat More Kale” shirts, and customers were soon asking for their own. The slogan quickly became Muller-Moore’s most popular by far—enough so that he began selling the shirts at EatMoreKale.com, and was commonly known as “the Eat More Kale Guy.” The shirts were the perfect apparel to accompany the growing “real food” movement that had overtaken the Green Mountain State and was spreading across the nation.
“Most literally, to me, it means if you are eating more kale, it means you are spending more time at farmers markets, or at co-ops, or you might be a member of a CSA,” he tells TakePart. “Or you might be keeping company with friends that would rather make a kale salad than get a chicken sandwich.”
But as the popularity of Muller-Moore’s shirts grew, so did the number of knock-offs. Imposters were ripping off the artist’s design and uploading it to websites like CafePress.com, Ebay and Zazzle.com, and selling shirts printed with it as their own. In most cases, the websites removed the offending sellers once Muller-Moore notified them that the logo and slogan were his intellectual property. But Ebay still sells Eat More Kale shirts made by someone other than the Vermont artist because it says he doesn’t have a trademark.
So Muller-Moore set out to trademark his slogan with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. What he got was a year-and-a-half standoff with the office because someone—presumably Chick-fil-A—submitted a letter of protest saying Muller-Moore’s slogan would be confused with that of the fast-food chain: “Eat Mor Chikin.”
“I’ve been doing this for 12 years, and haven’t found a single person yet who’s confused,” Muller-Moore tells TakePart. “Don’t you think you could let me go and do my thing?”
In a letter sent to Muller-Moore in March, the Trademark Office signaled hesitancy to even register Eat More Kale, let alone trademark it, because it may be confused with Eat Mor Chikin. Muller-Moore has six months to respond to the office’s preliminary “no,” which requires him to address several issues—including the likelihood of confusion—and he will then have to wait another six months for the Trademark Office’s ruling. That means it could be another year before Muller-Moore will know the future of the slogan he’s been using for more than a decade. And all because he set out to protect himself against real threats of infringement from copycat sellers online.
“While [going through the trademark process], I become ensnared in Chick-fil-A’s web where they’re protecting themselves from made-up or perceived threats,” he says. “In doing so, they get the rights not only to block my trademark, they get the right to pursue cease and desist, and they get the right to sue for any profits I’ve made on Eat More Kale shirts.”
You read that right: If the Trademark Office rules that Eat More Kale has infringed upon Chick-fil-A’s trademarked slogan, the fast-food chain can sue Muller-Moore’s garage business for any profits it has made using the slogan.
Since Eat More Kale’s story went public a year and a half ago, the case has become much bigger than a minor trademark dispute. For local food activists, it’s become a rallying cry; a David and Goliath story of Real Food vs. Factory Food. Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin took Muller-Moore’s side in 2011, calling out Chick-fil-A—which earned $4.6 billion in 2012—for “corporate bullying” and setting up a legal defense fund for Eat More Kale. Muller-Moore's lawyers are working for free. And sales of his Eat More Kale shirts have gone through the roof.
“People’s way of protesting this is buying T-shirts,” he says. “I guess we’re making lemonade out of lemons.”
Local lemons, of course.