Think of a four-letter word that can get you into big trouble.
Hey, drag your minds out of the gutter. You don’t have to dredge the vernacular sewer to come up with something explosive.
As crazy as it seems, the owners of two area pro-gun enterprises are taking legal potshots at each other over use of the most harmless word imaginable:
Bob Smith claims the “Safe” in Spokane’s new Safe Shooting Indoor Range damages and interferes with his business S.A.F.E. - a registered acronym for Security Awareness & Firearms Education.
Smith, a Post Falls resident, is a national self-defense expert who has taught his S.A.F.E. classes since 1985. He’s also a firefighter and paramedic with the Spokane Fire Department.
Smith says he failed to peacefully resolve this dispute with Robin and Steve Ball, who opened their posh indoor shooting gallery last summer at 1200 N. Freya.
The Balls “thought I would just roll over and take it,” says Smith. Now in full combat mode, he vows to settle this alleged trademark infringement even if it takes a $30,000 federal trial. “They’ve shot themselves in the foot with their cocky attitude,” he adds.
Getting so all-fired up over such a benign word seems half-cocked at first. But there’s more to this emotionally charged squabble than meets the bull’s-eye.
U.S. District Court Judge Robert Whaley thought so. After listening to Smith and the Balls at a hearing, Whaley riddled the range owners last month by giving Smith a far-reaching preliminary injunction.
As of Dec. 8, the Balls can’t use the word safe as a title until a jury says otherwise or unless they get the injunction modified.
Everything must be changed: signs, billboards, stationary, business cards, T-shirts, advertising….Even the catchy telephone number - 534-SAFE must go.
Whaley’s decision blew away the Balls.
“It’s hard to place ads when you can’t use your name,” says a frustrated Robin Ball. “You try to establish a corporate ID and then you have to drop your logo.”
But don’t shed too many tears for the Balls. They may have only their own stubbornness to blame.
The couple knew they were clomping on Smith’s toes months before the indoor range opened.
They knew because he told them. The Balls invited Smith to become a shareholder and use their range to teach S.A.F.E. classes.
That they refused to take the “Safe” out of Safe Shooting Indoor Range when he asked fueled Smith’s suspicion. He believes the Balls wanted to cash in on S.A.F.E.’s longstanding good reputation with the gun crowd.
The Balls say it isn’t so. They say selecting “safe” as a corporate name was the innocent result of two years of research.
Still, their early connection to Smith makes me wonder if the Balls are firing blanks. The couple could be stuck with all the legal bills if Smith can prove, as he believes, that this name game was calculated.
There are, of course, plenty of other firms using the word safe. The Salvation Army, for example, runs a SAFE Center on Broadway.
Smith won’t sue the charity because a name is just one issue of a trademark argument. You must also prove your business and the offending business are similar enough in nature so that any name resemblance will confuse customers.
That’s how Smith won the first battle of this odd shooting war. His attorney, Chris Lynch, convinced Judge Whaley that S.A.F.E. and Safe Shooting Indoor Range were enough alike to legally matter and that confusion had already occurred.
The injunction may only be a temporary victory, but words that sound like surrender are coming out of the Balls’ camp.
“The sun doesn’t rise and set on that four-letter word,” says Robin Ball. “I’d like to get back on track and somehow stop feuding.”