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Court won’t be reeled in by GUPPIE couple claim

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It was the “battle of the guppies” between Viacom International Inc. and a couple. Viacom has emerged the winner in this fish fight, an appellate court ruled.

Debbie and Dean Rohn had filed suit against New York-based Viacom for trademark infringement in connection with Viacom’s trademarked television characters, the Bubble Guppies, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday in Cincinnati in Debbie Rohn, Dean Rohn v. Viacom International Inc., et al.

The couple own two trademarks, one for the word GUPPIE, an acronym for “Growing Up Playing Pursuing Individual Excellence,” and a second for a logo, the word GUPPIE, in which a fish in a necktie forms the letter G. The trademarks give the Rohns exclusive right to put the word and logo on items including hats and shirts.

They started in 1990 and have since sold, at most, $12,000 in Guppie Kid” apparel, but most of these sales came in the first 15 years, and the Rohns have sold only about $2,000 of their apparel since 2005, said the ruling.

Viacom premiered its Bubble Guppies show on its Nickelodeon television network in 2011, said the ruling. The show, pitched to a young audience, features cartoon children with fish tails learning how to count and read.

In its logo, the end of the letter G is draped like a fish tail. Viacom has licensed the characters and logo to large retailers that make and sell Bubble Guppies apparel. 

The Rohns sued Viacom and various retailers for trademark infringement, alleging potential customers were likely to confuse Guppie Kid and Bubble Guppies apparel.

The U.S. District Court in Grand Rapids, Michigan, granted Viacom’s motion for summary judgment and entered judgment for all defendants.

A three-judge appeals court panel upheld the ruling. The panel held the couple’s claims were, well, somewhat fishy. To show infringement, “the Rohns must show confusion,” said the ruling.

But $10,000 of the $12,000 in clothing sold was in western Michigan before 2005. “Even before Bubble Guppies arrived, then, Guppie Kid sights were few” and were “already becoming fewer” because a number of the stores that carried the line apparently had closed “long ago,” the ruling said.

“That would explain why the Rohns offer no evidence that any consumer has actually confused the two brands, which is the best evidence that consumers are likely to confuse them,” said the panel, in affirming the lower court’s ruling.