What’s in a name?

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Lawrence Papoff

The American Automobile Association (AAA) is a non-profit organization, which boasts 55.6 million members in North America. It’s the organization that provides emergency road service, among other things, for its members.

Its roots are deep. The AAA was founded in 1902. The U.S. postal service even honoured the club with a postage stamp on its 50th birthday.

In the 1960s, the AAA helped Congress draft the National Traffic and Motor Safety Act. During the fuel crisis of the 1970s, the AAA came up with the AAA Fuel Gauge Report, designed to help drivers find gas stations that were open. The report soldiers on as the Gas Watchers Guide.

The list goes on. Point being the AAA’s name is everywhere on maps, tour guides, etc. So why is it taking the time to sue AAA Auto Ltd. – a small, used car dealership in Toronto – for trademark infringement?

News of the lawsuit was first shared in the April edition of Front Line, the Used Car Dealers’ Association of Ontario’s newsletter.

“The UCDA will do what we can to help our member and keep you informed as this plays out,” the association pledged.

According to published reports, this isn’t the first time the AAA has gone to court to protect its name. AAA Motor Sales had been doing business under that name in Milwaukee, Wisc., for nearly 50 years in 2010 when the AAA decided it couldn’t take it anymore.

Like its Ontario counterpart, the dealership sells used cars.

Owner Don Stiegelbauer told the Milwaukee Journal at the time that he wasn’t trying to palm himself off as the American Automobile Association.

Businesses like Stiegelbauer’s are likely to confuse customers who identify the AAA mark with the association’s services, argued AAA rep Yolanda Cade, who wasn’t impressed by the reasoning that her organization is not in the used-car business.

The AAA insisted he drop one of the A’s from the company name.

He refused.

University of Wisconsin law professor Shubah Ghosh said that the confusion issue is a key one. And in any event, the holder of a valid trademark – the AAA has many of them – has a strong hand.

“Trademark law is very favourable to the trademark owner,” Ghosh said.

The dealership eventually lost its court battle and had to change its name to A and A Motor Sales.