WASHINGTON -- I am on the phone with Bill Staley, co-founder of Primal Palate, a maker of organic spices. Primal Palate was in the news recently because it is being sued by the company that makes Old Bay seasoning; the lawsuit contends that Primal Palate is infringing on Old Bay's trademark by marketing a too-similar seafood spice called New Bae. ("Bae" is a young person's acronym for one's main squeeze, meaning "before anyone else.")
Primal Palate contends it is guiltless: that its product is completely different, and packaged differently, and that the name is merely mild homage, not theft.
Me: Hi. I want to publicly support you in your legal fight. I want to like you guys because I believe the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and I famously detest and resent Old Bay seasoning. I have described Old Bay, more than once, in print, as tasting like dandruff from a corpse mixed with the moldy rust scraped off an old toilet fixture.
Me: I know. I am very serious about this crusade. Old Bay has become annoyingly ubiquitous, insinuating itself into not just every crab sold in restaurants in the Mid-Atlantic, but also, abominably, on french fries and chicken and vegetables ...
Bill: Actually, we recommend that for New Bae, too!
Me: ... and ice cream.
Bill: OK, maybe not that.
Me: I want to squeeze Old Bay out of business, and now, as its legal nemesis and market competitor, you are just the folks to help me do it. I can offer hundreds of thousands of eyeballs reading my endorsement. But I have a problem. I have purchased some New Bae, and at first glance and first whiff and first taste, you do very closely resemble Old Bay. Also, in terms of ingredients, you both have salt and paprika and celery seed, and though Old Bay doesn't divulge any more ingredients, you both also seem to have cardamom and mace and allspice.
Bill: Yes, but ...
Me: I will admit that the taste is slightly different, and I am very slightly less revolted by New Bae than I am by Old Bay, but I can't really back you if you are a copycat product. So please tell me why you are not. I promise to be really gullible. Now, to begin with, do you feel New Bae tastes like dandruff from corpses and rust from toilet fixtures?
Bill: Well, we're not marketing it that way.
Me: Good, good! We're halfway there. Now how else are you different?
Bill: We are more complex and fiery tasting. But most important, New Bae is a fully organic product and Old Bay isn't. No pesticides and chemicals are used in growing our products. Plus, Old Bay is in a plastic container and ours is glass. Glass is inert. There's no chance that it transfers chemicals to the product.
Me: So Old Bay kills people!
Bill: I don't believe that.
Me: Work with me here, Bill.
Bill: I don't necessarily believe that.
Me: Good job. I am going with you guys. But I have one demand. It does me no good if your very similar product kills Old Bay but takes over the same mammoth market and spreads just as widely. Then I will have to hate you, too. So do you promise to accept only reasonable profits -- perhaps enough to buy a Swiss chalet or two, but not, say, the entire island of Tahiti -- by not getting greedy? Do you promise to limit your reach and your spread? To not become just as much of an impossible-to-avoid blight on the human palate?
Bill: Business can be a driver for good. ...
Me: Work with me here, Bill!
Bill: I promise.
Me: We're good to go.
Gene Weingarten can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter, @geneweingarten. Chat with him online Tuesdays at noon Eastern at www.washingtonpost.com.
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