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The Story Behind the Mars Hill Trademark Dispute

Sacramento church will keep name, change logo. Seattle church says demand letter was a mistake.

Seattle's prominent Mars Hill Church says the way it handled a Sacramento, California, church's similar name and logo was a mistake. The California church, meanwhile, has promised to redesign its logo and website.

Officials from the Ballard, Washington, multisite church say a member called attention to the Sacramento church's website, asking if the churches were connected. When elders saw a logo similar to their own, which has been in use since 1996, they sent a cease-and-desist letter to Sacramento's Mars Hill Community Church, which has three locations if its own. Mars Hill Seattle filed an application to trademark its name and logo in August.

"The purpose of including both the name and logo in our filing, as opposed to just our name or just our M logo, is to allow us to prevent other churches from combining a 'Mars Hill' name with a substantially similar logo, like what we saw with the Mars Hill churches in Sacramento," said Mike Anderson, director of communications at the Seattle-area church, which is pastored by Mark Driscoll. "We are not concerned with other Mars Hill churches unless their logo and branding is [similar to] ours. Based on our research, there were no other such churches."

The similarities were completely unintentional, Mars Hill Community Church pastor Scott Hagan said in a blog post . Plans for his church began in 2005, with the logo being designed in 2007. "In 2009, while preaching in Seattle I drove through downtown near the waterfront and came across a Mars Hill property and saw their logo," Hagan said. "I actually thought, until I received the letter from Stokes & Lawrence, that Mars Hill Seattle had used our design."

The Seattle church now says it regrets sending the letter from a lawyer's office and requesting a change of name and logo within two weeks.

"In hindsight, we realize now that the way we went about raising our concerns, while acceptable in the business world, is not the way we should deal with fellow Christians," Mars Hill Seattle's elders said. "We made a mistake in not calling these churches prior to sending the letter. We should have picked up the phone before sending any other communication."

Hagan said changing the name of the church would have cost thousands of dollars. He shared his concerns with a close friend, Mike Philips, who posted about it on his blog last Thursday.

On Friday, Hagan and several staff members of the Seattle church had a conference call to reach a compromise, Hagan said. "I agreed to start the process of a logo redesign since they now owned the trademark," he said. "They assured me that even though the letter from Stokes & Lawrence called for a name change, that was off the table."

In a Saturday blog post, elders from the Seattle church said the incident is not part of a larger campaign. "We have not sued any churches and have no plans to sue any churches," they said. "We have not sent any similar letters to any other 'Mars Hill' churches, and we are not planning on asking any church with 'Mars Hill' in their name to change their name."

The name Mars Hill is not an uncommon one for American churches. Its origin is found in Acts 17, where Paul preaches the gospel to the people of Athens, and distinguishes God from "an image made by human design and skill" (v. 29, NIV). Mars Hill Bible Church in Grandville, Michigan, is one of the most prominent churches in the country (its pastor, Rob Bell, is leaving later this year to move to Los Angeles). A quick search of the online yellow pages brought up at least one Mars Hill church in: Alabama, Arkansas, California, Florida, Georgia, Illinois, Indiana, Louisiana, Maryland, Michigan, Mississippi, New Jersey, New Mexico, New York, Oregon, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, Virginia, and Washington. And there are at least two in Mars Hill, North Carolina.

This is not the first time use of the name Mars Hill has led to confusion, either. In June, a 14-year-old seminary in Seattle changed its name from Mars Hill Graduate School to the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology, as the name led many to believe the school was affiliated with Mars Hill Seattle. Others have wondered whether the Mars Hill Audio Journal or the now-defunct Mars Hill Review were connected to one of the well-known churches. (They were not, and unconnected to each other as well).

Though the initial letter raised a lot of concern, Hagan said he's satisfied with how the situation has turned out. "I feel good that we've reached a point of reconciliation."

Related Elsewhere:

Earlier Christianity Today articles on trademark disputes include:

Imperials Embroiled in Lawsuit Over Name | One of Christian music's most popular singing groups is entangled in a legal battle that puts father and son on opposing sides. (Feb. 28, 2008)
Domain Game: Can Jews for Jesus Win Its Google Suit? | It's not clear whether group has right to trademark in subdomains. (March 2006)
Who's a Jew?: Messianic Ministry Sued Over Use of Menorah | Canadian Jews sue Chosen People Ministries over use of ancient symbol. (June 10, 2002)
Let's Roll ©®™ | The widow of Todd Beamer is concerned that the wrong people are embracing America's new creed. (April 2002)

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