Poor Standard & Pours?

For three years Pascale Hall has owned and operated a coffee shop in the basement of an apartment building. The odds should have dictated long ago that she shutter her doors and make room for the next venture (and the next and next). After all, she was down in the Cedars long before it became a hot spot; when she moved there in March 2003 it wasn't even warm yet, just a burgeoning urban isle borne of the former Sears Catalog Building, which was merely taking up space till it was reborn as the South Side on Lamar lofts. "I was the first retailer here, and people told me I was crazy to open a specialty coffee shop in South Dallas: 'What's wrong with you? Are you crazy?'" Hall says now. Turns out she wasn't: Standard & Pours Coffee and Stocks has become the quintessential neighborhood hang--part coffee shop, part performance space, part home to people in need of quaint, cozy spots in an otherwise desolate concrete outpost.

Yet there is that small chance--minuscule, though not altogether nonexistent--that Hall will not own Standard & Pours in the foreseeable future, and not because she is planning on selling or shuttering the place, but because an enormous business may well decide it wants to stamp out this tiny refuge for those with a java jones. You see, Standard & Pours Coffee and Stocks has somehow managed to draw the attention and the ire of the self-proclaimed "world's pre-eminent providers of credit ratings," Manhattan-based Standard & Poor's (you know, the S&P 500).

At issue, of course, is the name they share--more or less, kind of, not really. McGraw-Hill, which owns Standard & Poor's, wants Standard & Pours to give up its moniker, insisting in three letters to Hall over the past two years (most recently in April) that she's infringing upon the 65-year-old company's trademarked name. The missives began arriving in December 2004, when McGraw-Hill's trademark counsel, Andrew Baum of the New York-based firm Darby & Darby, sent Hall a letter saying that even though everyone knows she had no "malicious intent" when choosing the "clever play on words," they still wanted her to cease using the name Standard & Pours because "there is a likelihood that persons will believe that Standard & Poor's...is somehow connected with your business."

"And I was scared shitless when I got that first letter," Hall says, laughing. Hall's attorney at the time suggested she add a disclaimer to her Web site, which she did. Her attorney also contacted the company and said, essentially, You're kidding, right?"And they never said OK, and they never said it wasn't OK," Hall said. "They never said anything." Hall didn't hear another word for a long time and figured, well, that was that.

Then came another cease-and-desist letter in February 2005, in which Baum claimed her "continuing infringement and dilution" of S&P's name "remains a serious concern to our client." That time, Hall pretty much did nothing at all. She and her attorney figured it was just more cage-rattling. She thought S&P was bluffing. Still does, to a certain extent. Even the April 2006 letter doesn't scare her so much as it annoys her: She's gone from being defensive to defiant, threatening to take Standard & Poor's to court to settle the matter once and for all--if only because Hall's planning on opening other Standard & Pours locations with, she says, investors consisting of a few NBA players whose names she won't reveal.

"And I don't want to start a new venture with an investment company that's gonna be worked up about lawsuits," she says. "We want to make coffee. We don't want to go to court. People say it's not the name but what you do, and I have to disagree. We have a lot of recognition from the name, and when most of your advertising comes from word of mouth, changing the name really hurts you. I think we can co-exist, and they can do their stock indexes and we can do our coffee and we can all be happy, but they don't see it that way."

 
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