Raw Sushi is being sued.
The popular Sansom Street Japanese restaurant — more formally known as 1225 Raw Sushi & Sake Lounge — finds itself defending a federal lawsuit filed by none other than Benihana, the Florida-based corporation behind all those Benihana restaurants, as well as the Haru and RA Sushi restaurants. And it is on this latter brand that the lawsuit focuses.
The lawsuit, which was filed in Philadelphia's federal court, claims that our Raw Sushi is infringing upon Benihana's trademarks on RA Sushi and also says that Raw's websites, rawlounge.net and 1225raw.com, violate the Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act. Benihana is asking a judge to force Raw to give up its name and domains and is also seeking unspecified damages.
When we first heard about the lawsuit, we looked at the logos for RA Sushi (see their logo here) and Raw Sushi (above) to compare the two, but didn't really see much of a resemblance, if any. But then we realized that's not what Benihana is saying.
What the restaurant corporation is essentially arguing is that Raw infringes upon RA because "Raw" is "RA" with one extra letter, and because the words sound similar.
And, it's true, they do sound more similar than, let's say, "melon" and "hippopotamus," but they are, in fact, different words with different sounds. We called the RA Sushi in Baltimore -- one of 25 locations across the United States, with the first one dating back to 1997 -- and asked them how to properly pronounce the name of their restaurant, and the person answering the phone decidedly said "Rah" and not "Raw."
Still, we could imagine a situation where you're on the phone with dear old mom, telling her what an awesome meal you had at RA Sushi, but she mishears it as Raw Sushi. And trademarks do exist for a reason, and the trademark holder is not just entitled to protect its trademark: it's obligated to.
So we called our favorite Philadelphia intellectual property attorney, Jordan LaVine of Flaster Greenberg in Center City. LaVine, whose clients include the New York Times, Martha Stewart and Ancestry.com, knows a thing or two about trademark law, and he agreed to take a look at Benihana's complaint for us.
"It appears far-fetched," says LaVine. "It's borderline frivolous. The test, more or less, is: Is there a likelihood of confusion? And one of the key elements in assessing that likelihood is to ask whether the marks are similar. But I just think not. I think RA and Raw are not confusingly similar."
LaVine also points out that it's not like Raw is some brand new restaurant that just started using the name. In fact, owner Tony Rim opened Raw in 2005, and he has used the Raw name at since-closed satellite locations at the Piazza and inside the clothing store Boyds. The point is, the name Raw has been around for a long time in Philadelphia and is a well-established local brand.
"RA is probably planning on opening a location in Philadelphia," imagines LaVine, agreeing with our speculation. (RA Sushi's media relations officer inside Benihana's corporate headquarters in Florida did not respond to our request for information about any possible expansion into the Philadelphia market. Benihana's attorneys also did not respond to our request for comment.) "And they're concerned about Raw's presence here. It just seems like a much larger company trying to bully a local restaurant."
LaVine points out that this strategy is not atypical and that, in many instances, smaller restaurants will choose to fold to the bigger-pocketed Goliaths in the industry, rather than fork out all that money to pay court and attorney fees that can quickly skyrocket.
As for the cybersquatting accusation, LaVine says it's simply absurd. The Anti-Cybersquatting Consumer Protection Act was enacted because of legitimate issues of cybersquatting, i.e. registering a domain name with bad faith in order to make money off of it by capitalizing on a trademark owned by someone else, or by selling said domain name to the trademark holder, essentially for ransom. In this case, Rim has a legitimate and long-running business and every right to establish an Internet presence for it using his company's name, though it does not appear that Rim holds any trademarks on his restaurant's name.
If Rim won't back down, this matter will have to be decided in court and we, for one, hope he has the fight in him. We weren't able to reach him, because he is getting married tomorrow and is unavailable for comment.
"This is really an intimidation tactic and an abuse of the legal process," says LaVine. "These companies are counting on defendants just giving up."
Raw Sushi [Official]