Medieval Times sues performers' union over trademark infringement

Key Points
  • Medieval Times filed a suit claiming that its employees' union is infringing on its trademark.
  • The company says Medieval Times Performers United and its branding are confusingly similar to the dinner-and-show venue.
  • Other unions bear the name of their associated corporation, including Starbucks Workers United, as well as the recently formed Home Depot Workers United.
Medieval Times Dinner and Tournament, a family dinner theater featuring staged medieval-style games, sword-fighting, and jousting performed by a cast of 75 actors and 20 horses, held in Lyndhurst, New Jersey
Anadolu Agency | Getty Images

Medieval Times has thrown down the gauntlet.

The restaurant-and-show chain is suing its employees' New Jersey union for allegedly infringing on its trademark by using the Medieval Times name.

The complaint, filed Thursday in a New Jersey federal court, alleges that possible confusion with the union, Medieval Times Performers United, threatens the "established goodwill" of the dining and jousting venue and creates an inevitable association between the union and the company.

The restaurant also takes issue with the fact that the union claims to be located "at or near the Medieval Times castle" grounds in Lyndhurst, New Jersey, where the performers work. In the filing, the company included about half a dozen photos of its castles, which it says it has owned and operated for nearly 40 years.

The union also represents Medieval Times workers at a location in California. There are several Medieval Times locations throughout North America, including in Florida, Maryland and Toronto, Canada.

Medieval Times, which is privately owned, is seeking an injunction on the infringement and payment from the unionized castle workers for damages, attorney's fees and unjust profits made under the Medieval Times name. There is no indication that the union has any consumer-facing business.

Medieval Times Performers United is a subset of a national performers union called the American Guild of Variety Artists. Other AGVA members include Disneyland Resort performers, the Rockettes and theater performers both on and off Broadway.

Medieval Times Performers United on Thursday called the complaint a "frivolous lawsuit" and "unlawful thuggery."

"It is a grotesque attempt to retaliate against workers for exercising their legally protected right to form a union and bargain collectively," the union said in its statement. "But it will fail."

Medieval Times did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Should the lawsuit be successful, it could hold trademark implications for similarly named labor unions, which frequently include the name of the business represented by the employees that are organizing. But Julia Matheson, a partner and trademark expert at Potomac Law Group, sees no basis for a trademark claim.

Organizations such as these unions are entitled to "nominative fair use," which allows them to use the name as means of identifying the group and its association with the company, Matheson said.

She noted that Medieval Times doesn't hold a trademark on the castle imagery and red-gold color scheme that is noted in the filing, but said it likely wouldn't matter even if it did, because potential customers are not at risk of confusing the two organizations.

Trademark "is a consumer protection statute and consumers are not involved," Matheson said. "If the union were engaged in commercial activities that were trading on the employer, that would be a bit of a different horse."

Many other unions bear the name of their associated corporation, including Starbucks Workers United, as well as Trader Joe's United and the recently formed Home Depot Workers United.

"It's a sensitive topic that most employers don't want to take on, they don't want the bad PR," Matheson, whose firm has previously represented both plaintiffs and defendants in similar claims, told CNBC. "Honestly, given how much difficulty so many organizations are having finding employees these days, it's very interesting that Medieval Times chose this route."

Matheson's firm isn't involved in the Medieval Times case, but represents Starbucks on some matters.