Among the many priceless things about the classic Eddie Murphy film Coming to America is its unintended lesson on the ins and outs of U.S. trademark law.
You remember: Murphy, as Prince Akeem, gets a job as a lowly worker at McDowell's, a fast-food restaurant that is eerily similar to McDonald's, all the way down to its "golden arcs" and its signature sandwich, the "Big Mick."
Such similarities can be considered trademark infringement, and can lead to a lawsuit. It's the kind of situation at least three Tucson businesses find themselves in, as each is named in federal trademark suits filed in the past two months in U.S. District Court.
The owners of a cellphone store, a gas station and an auto-repair shop are accused—in separate cases—of using trademarked logos and other items on signage, websites and other promotional materials.
The first suit, filed in November by Swedish automaker Volvo, claims the Revolvstore Service Center at 802 N. Fourth Ave. and an affiliated parts office at 5275 E. Drexel Road have caused the "dilution of Volvo's world famous trademarks" by using a variation of Volvo in the business names and websites.
The suit claims Revolvstore, which according to the suit and state business records is owned by Andrew Aragon, has also made its company logo look similar to Volvo's without permission.
Such trademark infringements often lead to what is called initial interest confusion, says Gregory Phillips, a Salt Lake City-based attorney representing Volvo in the suit.
"If someone named their hamburger stand ReMcDonald's and put a bastardized version of the golden arches on their sign, McDonald's would sue them, too," Phillips said. "It doesn't have to say 'Volvo'; it just has to be confusingly similar. We're not trying to put (Revolvstore) out of business. Volvo's not trying to say they can't service Volvo vehicles or say they service Volvo vehicles; we just don't want a disgruntled customer, for example, to think if they do a shoddy job ... that Volvo's to blame."
Neither Revolvstore owner Aragon nor his attorney returned calls seeking comment.
While the Volvo-Revolvstore dispute involves similar logos and names, suits filed by cellular provider Boost Mobile and gasoline-company Valero claim outright unauthorized use of their trademarked material.
The Jan. 16 suit filed by Boost against Comtek Paging and Cellular LLC includes photos of the outside of Comtek's store at 442 W. Valencia Road, where Boost's name and logo are displayed alongside logos for Cricket and other cellular providers.
The suit claims Comtek isn't an authorized Boost dealer, but is using the logo to "confuse or to deceive the public into believing that defendant's goods and services ... are offered under Boost's supervision and control." The suit says that Boost employees visited the store and asked for the logos to be removed, but that owner Fabricio Rivera "refused and, instead, demanded that Boost's employees leave the store."
Rivera did not return calls for comment.
What Boost alleges is not an uncommon business practice, says Barak Orbach, a professor specializing in trademark law at the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law.
"It's basically stealing," Orbach said. "A business will sometimes do this to get people in the door. They'll say, 'No, we don't sell Boost, but we do sell (this). Most people don't understand that this is stealing."
Valero's complaint against Novus Fuels also alleges that a proprietor isn't authorized to use a logo. But in this case, Valero claims that is because a longstanding agreement between the entities was severed due to breaches on Novus' part.
According to the suit, filed Jan. 18, Novus and Valero had a distribution agreement since 2005 for two gas stations—one at 4811 E. Sunrise Drive, and another in Nogales. That agreement, the suit says, allowed Valero to extend credit to Novus in order to purchase gas for its station. But in November, Valero cut off Novus' credit due to more than $400,000 in unpaid orders, the suit says.
The suit claims Valero hasn't sold or delivered any gas to Novus since Oct. 26, and that since then, Novus' stations have sold gas purchased from a third party while still using Valero's signage.
Novus owner Samuel Rodriguez declined to go into detail about the suit, but claimed that much of what is alleged is not true.
"There's a whole lot more to what's on that document," Rodriguez said of the suit, which he characterized as a reaction to an ongoing dispute between Novus and Valero. "There's so much more depth to this. This is just a fraction of the pie."
While Valero's suit seeks to collect on what it says Novus owes, the main objective of most trademark-infringement complaints is to get the alleged infringement stopped, Orbach said.
"It's not costing them a lot of money, but it is annoying to them," he said. "Companies develop their image for certain reasons, and because of those reasons they want to control that image."