It’s Chamber vs. Chamber in lawsuit over trademark

Two well-known business trade associations are embroiled in a legal battle that could affect which will represent Hispanic businesses, a rising political and economic force, in Washington.

The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is accusing its one-time ally, the much larger U.S. Chamber of Commerce, of trying to diminish its influence with Latino business leaders through a trademark fight over the right to use the words “United States” and “chamber of commerce.” The U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is also claiming that the other Chamber has tried to poach its members by offering them free memberships.

The U.S. Chamber, the nation’s leading business trade group, is an ardent advocate for competition and a liberal immigration policy. But critics contend that in its fight with the rival chamber, it is motivated by fear both of competition and a Hispanic invasion of its turf.

 “We believe that like any other business, they see the opportunity there may be to extend their membership in the Latino community; that’s fair game,” said David Lizarraga, chairman of the U.S. Hispanic chamber. “But they see us as an obstacle. If they remove us from the playing field, then it is completely open.”

The U.S. Chamber has filed two lawsuits against the U.S. Hispanic chamber and the U.S. Hispanic Chamber of Commerce Foundation for trademark infringement. The suits claim that the U.S. Chamber owns the words “United States” and “Chamber of Commerce” exclusively, according to a U.S. Hispanic chamber lawyer who summarized the cases.

If successful, the litigation would force the U.S. Hispanic chamber to drop “United States” and “Chamber of Commerce” from its name.  

But Stephen Bokat, senior vice president and general counsel at the U.S. Chamber, denies the suggestion that it is trying to squash a competitor.

“That’s simply untrue,” he said. “We’re just trying to protect our name because we’re worried that if too many people use our name we will lose the right [to protect against] others from encroaching on the use of U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

Bokat said his association offered to license its name to the U.S. Hispanic chamber for a nominal sum and “they refused.”

“We had no intention of taking their name, their members or anything else,” said Bokat.
In the last three years, the Hispanic chamber has more than doubled its membership, from 110 member groups to nearly 250.

Its $15 million budget is a fraction of what the U.S. Chamber has. The latter spent more than $30 million just lobbying in the second half of 2006.

The Hispanic chamber is also growing in visibility. This week President Bush addressed a three-day gathering it organized for Hispanic business leaders in Washington.

“We’re seeing membership growing all over the United States,” said Lizarraga. “Maybe we’re being seen for the first time as posing a threat.”

Hispanic chamber officials have decided to use the occasion of this week’s national legislative conference to go public with their trademark fight. They will hold a press conference this afternoon in the Rayburn House office building with members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus to protest their rival’s litigation. 

The winner could claim to be the main Washington representative of a community projected to reach $1 trillion in total buying power  within two years.

“They want to remove us from the table. … This is about power and influence and money,” said Melinda Guzman, the Hispanic chamber’s general counsel. “This is about eliminating potential competition in a huge and … significant population.”

The two chambers share political philosophies on a variety of issues such as immigration reform that includes a guest worker program. But they are not formally affiliated with one another.

For years, the two groups peacefully coexisted. The Hispanic Chamber of Commerce is 27 years old, and its affiliated foundation has been around for 14 years.

But in 2002, the U.S. Chamber accused the United States Hispanic Chamber of Commerce from trademark infringement.

A year earlier the Hispanic chamber had filed to register its logo, which includes the group’s full name, with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

That dispute is expected to go to trial next year.

Hispanic officials insist the larger Chamber sees the economic writing on the wall, and doesn’t want competition to represent Hispanic businesses.

Pew Hispanic Center projects the total U.S. Hispanic market to reach $1 trillion by the end of 2008. Lizarraga said that Hispanic small businesses are growing twice as fast as other small businesses.
 “It’s obvious that our influence is growing,” said Lizarraga.

Despite the legal battle, Hispanic chamber officials say they have attempted to open up a dialogue with the U.S. Chamber. The Hispanic chamber has, for example, called on the U.S. Chamber to put more Hispanic executives on its board.

But so far, they say Chamber President and CEO Thomas Donohue has rebuffed their efforts to create a dialogue.

Bokat said he knew of no outreach efforts by the Hispanic chamber. He added that Harry Alford, the president of the National Black Chamber of Commerce, was a member of his association’s board of directors and it made no sense that Hispanic leaders would be excluded.

Both the growing economic power and the sheer size of the Hispanic population has attracted more than lobbyists, of course. Politicians are increasingly interested in reaching out to the Hispanic community.

 “We are getting more attention from everybody,” said Lizarraga. “Any corporation that doesn’t target this $1 trillion market that will emerge in the next two years as an opportunity for growth isn’t going to grow.”

Particularly enticing to businesses, Lizarraga said, is that Latino market is largely untapped, whereas other ethic–based markets are mature.