The tiny Winnipeg queer tabloid Swerve is having a go at Canada's monster media company, CanWest Global Communications Corp.,
over the rights to the gay publication's very name.
Last November, the bigshots in Calgary launched an entertainment weekly called -- you guessed it -- Swerve.
The promotional bumph is actually a tad campy: "Fun listings, Calgary inside and out... Introducing Swerve, the weekly entertainment, culture and lifestyle magazine. It's the straight goods on a dynamic city, from the insider's perspective." A sample cover on the website reads: "Why we still care about Cher." The paper's a protectorate of the daily Calgary Herald,
and distributed as a Friday insert, plus as a stand-alone -- a sort of faux alt weekly.
'Peg Swerve editor Richard Wood says he heard about all this in February (I talked to him late last night). Staffers were going to let it be until they discovered that CanWest was applying for a trademark on the name. "They can enforce that across the country," says Wood, who suddenly saw his queer mag being ordered to change its name -- at a substantial cost and probable loss of readership, as queers suddenly lost sight of their regular read and assumed a shut-down.
The CanWest head offices are around the corner from the queer Swerve mag. CanWest owns 11 major dailies, commuter dailies, a whoppingly huge collection of weeklies, TV stations... more media outlets than I can count this morning on limited coffee intake.
It's so early in Calgary that I have yet to be able to reach CanWest lawyer George Wowk, who Wood says is carrying CanWest's torch on this. I'll update when I do. Ditto for Calgary Swerve editor Shelley Youngblood.
Yesterday, Wood sent out a press release across the continent. CanWest had offered options. One is that queer Swerve gets Winnipeg, and CanWest sews up the rest of the country. But the queer paper already distributes outside of Winnipeg, and is interested in growth, not shrinkage. A second option was money in exchange for renaming, but the press release said the offer was unacceptable. (No specifics forthcoming.)
So, Swerve is challenging CanWest's trademark
request -- and publicizing it.
is 11 years old, a monthly printing 5,500 copies and an annual budget of about $90,000 (this includes printing and poverty-level payments to a handful of staffers -- many are actually volunteers). In newspaper terms, that's tiny. In fact, Wood says that when he joined in February 2001, Swerve was on the verge of bankruptcy.
"We're gambling about one-third of our yearly budget," Wood says of the legal games. Not to mention picking a fight with the people who control a huge part of the Canadian media.
ADDENDUM: the only useful CanWest e-mail addy I can find is for
finance and chief financial officer.
ADDED 15:30: Geoffrey Elliot, a vice-president at CanWest (communications), has returned my calls: "We don't comment on matters that are essentially legal disputes. We let these matters take their course."
MONDAY: Toronto Star media columnist Antonia Zerbisias got someone to pay attention to her:
Peter Menzies, publisher of the Calgary Herald. Here's his response:
"I have now returned to Calgary and note that you have written about the Swerve trademake issue and used your forum to redistribute their press release.
"I am disappointed to see that Mr. Wood has chosen to articulate the matter in this fashion. We launched our magazine last November as a purely local supplement to our newspaper, not as a corporate initiative. As good business people, we proceeded to make a trademark application to protect our interests and those of our employees and advertisers in this market. When I first heard of Mr. Wood's concern, indeed of his magazine, it was because he had notified the company that unless we paid him a large sum of money he would feel obliged to challenge our application. As we had no intention of interfering with his business operation in Winnipeg we did not feel it was necessary to meet his request.
"While he has every right to challenge the application, he has been assured in writing by us that we do not tend to interfere with his operation within the Winnipeg area and wish him all the best."
AND THE LAST WORD, posted Friday, goes to Winnipeg's Richard Wood, who sent me this e-mail: "I can't say for certain when Peter would have heard about our magazine, but his lawyers were aware of us in late April, if not sooner. If you go to the site that lists the chronology of their application to trademark the name, it lists the initial opposition date as April 25; I wrote to Gail Asper with an offer to sell the name on June 21. I wrote to David Asper on July 13. Prior to those letters, we had not made any request for a large sum of money.
"We have since made a reasonable offer based on the costs of changing our name and establishing our new brand; in all honesty, it is an opening offer. We've never been given a dollar figure from The Herald; we've only been told it will not be a significant amount. We're open to counter offers, but if they believe that changing a magazine's name after ten years is cheap and easy, then perhaps we could give them $50 to change their name after the ten months they've been in print. Obviously it would be a ridiculous offer, so why is it reasonable to pay us a token amount?
"We have not been assured in writing that they intend not to interfere with our use of the name. It was one of the options presented to us, but with one major catch (and Peter includes this in his comments): They will not interfere as long as we distribute in Winnipeg only. Our answer to that has been no from the start. We already publish outside of Winnipeg and online. We will continue expanding our readership as any good publication would.
"Considering the absurd and vicious trademark enforcement we've seen from large corporations in the past (Peter must be aware of the Barbie case in Calgary), and taking into account that CanWest is not known as a gentle giant, it would be naive at best and stupid at worst to think we wouldn't face an even larger legal battle once CanWest trademarked the name. We're not being greedy (if we do get a settlement, the money goes into the magazine, not our pockets; we are a non-profit after all), and we're not being malicious (we don't have enough money to afford that luxury), we're being proactive and fair."