Pierogi, dumplings typically filled with savory ingredients of Central and Eastern European descent, are a cause for celebration. At least that’s the sentiment shared by 300,000 people who visit Whiting, IN, each year at the end of July to take part in the Whiting Pierogi Fest. A celebration of the ethnic heritage of the region, the Whiting Pierogi Fest has been growing in attendance since the first version of the annual event occurred in the mid-1980s.
However, Whiting is not the only community in America that honors the tasty morsel of Polish cuisine with a festival lasting at least a day. The city of Buffalo, NY, for example, recently held its first ever Buffalo Pierogi Fest organized by a local social services organization. In Pennsylvania, the Edwardsville Pierogi Festival has been held each year, coordinated by the Edwardsville Hometown Committee, since 2014. In order to keep operating under the Pierogi Festival name, the Edwardsville committee has filed a suit against the coordinators of the Whiting Pierogi Fest in the Middle District of Pennsylvania.
A complaint filed by the Edwardsville Hometown Committee against the Whiting-Robertsdale Chamber of Commerce seeks a declaration that “there is no possibility of consumer confusion between the Edwardsville event and the suburban Chicago event.” The Edwardsville committee alleges that, on two occasions, the Whiting-Robertsdale chamber sent correspondence as early as May 2015 threatening legal action for infringing upon U.S. Trademark Registration No. 3476218, which protects the standard character mark “PIEROGI FEST” and is owned by the Whiting-Robertsdale chamber. The mark was registered in December 2007 and it covers the use of the mark on entertainment services in the nature of organizing and promoting an annual festival and parade that emphasizes Polish ethnicity.
The Edwardsville committee is also seeking relief for tortious interference. It alleges that the Whiting-Robertsdale chamber has willfully interfered in business relationships forged by the Edwardsville committee to finance the Edwardsville Pierogi Festival. According to the complaint, a June 2016 letter sent by Whiting-Robertsdale to the Edwardsville committee was also forwarded by Whiting-Robertsdale to several sponsors of the Edwardsville Pierogi Festival. That letter, which charged that the Edwardsville event “directly compete[s] with the [Whiting-Robertsdale] Chamber’s festival services and are sold in overlapping channels of trade,” noted that sponsors could be held liable for use of the trademark in promoting the Edwardsville event. According to the recent lawsuit, some sponsors have “expressed significant concern” to the Edwardsville committee over the potential liability involved in promoting the event.
There does seem to be a very interesting legal question here surrounding trademarks used to cover such annual festivals. As the Edwardsville complaint notes, that community is a much smaller market than the Chicago region in which the Whiting Pierogi Fest takes place 700 miles away. Edwardsville’s 2010 census population was 4,816 residents. Attorney James Haggerty, representing the Edwardsville committee, is quoted in a World Intellectual Property Review article on the subject as saying that “there is nobody on planet Earth who is going to confuse the Edwardsville Pierogi Festival with the suburban Chicago ‘Pierogi Fest.’”
As the complaint notes, Edwardsville has suffered from decades of decline and the Pierogi Festival arose out of a desire to celebrate the ethnic heritage of the community. Luzerne County, which includes the borough of Edwardsville, is the only county in the entire United States in which Polish is the most prevalent ethnic group. The proceeds from the Edwardsville Pierogi Festival are used solely for community and civic purposes. Money raised by the event has been used to fund teddy bears given by the Edwardsville Police Department to children, refreshments for an annual event for the families of veterans and active service members, an annual Halloween-themed family event as well as flower bulbs and American flags for municipal spaces. There would seem to be an argument that the legal activities made by Whiting-Robertsdale, and the resources diverted to respond to those, could be hampering an array of civic activities in the Edwardsville community.
And yet, the nature of federally registered trademarks is such that, when suspected infringement is discovered, it must be addressed right away or the trademark owner risks losing that mark. This is a point reflected in a statement made by Tom Dabertin, chairman of the Whiting Pierogi Fest, which was published in a Chicago Tribune article. The June 2017 letter sent by Whiting-Robertsdale notes that “the Chamber is open to discussing with you the opportunity for licensing of its trademark.” Further coverage by Boston-area news outlet WHDH confirms that the Whiting-Robertsdale chamber has licensed the name to similar ethnic food festivals in the past. And if the Whiting Pierogi Fest does attract pierogi lovers from all over the world, it’s likely that its brand is known to at least some citizens of Luzerne County.
It’s tough to tell right now if the Pierogi Fest case will boil over into a large battle at the district court level or if one side or the other will get fried early on in the case. However, most fans of Polish dumplings are probably hoping that both festival committees can return to more important business like finding out who stole the kishka or getting another helping of kapusta.