"Frugalista" Debate: One Blogger Stakes Claim

A trademark fight over the use of a recession-era word begins.

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The term "frugalista," which is so widely used that even the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, has now been trademarked by Natalie P. McNeal, a Miami Herald blogger, causing a brouhaha in the world of personal finance bloggers. McNeal's lawyer has been sending letters to other bloggers who call themselves "frugalistas," informing them that they must immediately stop doing so.

While McNeal has apparently gone through the effort of obtaining a trademark, its legitimacy is not entirely clear. Dozens of bloggers already use the term to identify themselves, including a Frugalista in Los Angeles, a Jackson Frugalista, and one in Japan. Even the retailer Target has filed a trademark application on the term "fashionista frugalista."

Trademarks usually protect terms that are distinctive—that is, they should be widely associated with the person who holds the trademark. But in the case of "frugalista," it is so widely used that it is hard to imagine how McNeal can argue that the term applies singularly to her, especially considering that she started her blog in 2008, well after the word was popular. The First Amendment, after all, protects the fair use of words, even if one person would like to claim exclusivity. (McNeal seems to have big plans for the word; her trademark application mentions cable television shows and motion pictures. She has not yet responded to my e-mail about the issue, but I hope she does, because I would love to include her perspective.)

When I asked McNeal's lawyer, Alexis Hart McDowell, how McNeal can own a trademark for a term used by so many other bloggers, she said that because her client filed the trademark, "they all have to stop now. It can be considered confusingly similar." She declined to say whether she was in the midst of contacting those bloggers to tell them to stop using the term, but at least one, Amy Marquez of Jackson Frugalista, has posted the letter she received from McDowell.

McDowell emphasizes that other writers can still use the word "frugalista" in their stories—which may seem obvious, given the fact that it is a commonly used word—but that they cannot identify themselves as a "frugalista."

Will McNeal be able to defend her trademark? Do you think she should be able to? We'll have to wait and see.