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Can a trademark restrict who wears flight suits?

Dispute divides former pilots in rival motivational speaking companies

Jul. 14, 2014 - 06:00AM   |  
Air Force pilots depart the flight line at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. A trademark dispute raises questions about whether retired or former pilots can wear flight suits when speaking in public.
Air Force pilots depart the flight line at Shaw Air Force Base, S.C. A trademark dispute raises questions about whether retired or former pilots can wear flight suits when speaking in public. (Airman 1st Class Krystal M. Jeffers/Air Force)
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Whether former military pilots can dress like pilots and talk like pilots in public appearances are issues at the heart of a trademark dispute between two rival motivational speaking companies run by former fighter pilots.

The case pits Afterburner Inc., founded in 1996 by former Georgia Air National Guard F-15 instructor pilot Jim Murphy, against The Corps Group, established six years ago by former Afterburner members who have served in the Air Force, Navy and Marine Corps.

The two companies have similar goals and practices. They use former pilots as presenters for corporate training workshops and team-building events. Their speakers wear flight suits and use imagery and language from their military days. Afterburner’s website lists 40 former military personnel as employees, ranging from pilots to Navy SEALs.

In April, the Forsyth County, Georgia, Superior Court seemed to rule in favor of Afterburner, which brought the suit claiming its business model was stolen by The Corps Group. Chief Judge Jeffrey Bagley cited The Corps Group for infringement on trademarks held by Afterburner and fined the The Corps Group $473,189 for damages. The protected trademarks, the court said, give Afterburner exclusive rights to the use of specific pilot language, imagery and the wear of flight suits during public speaking.

The judge in the case rejected Afterburner’s attempt to trademark a flight suit, an effort that would have banned veterans from wearing the uniform in public.

However, the jury in the case ruled against The Corps Group, saying that they violated Afterburner’s “trade dress,” meaning a combination of the flight suit, visuals and language such as “plan, brief, execute, debrief,” “flawless execution” and “task saturation.”

The decision didn’t specifically outline what is included in the trade dress, so the judge recently removed the flight suit from the injunction because the jury didn’t specifically outline what can exclusively be used by Afterburner.

The decision is muddy for the companies. Corps Group CEO John Borneman said for the time being, they can wear a flight suit but the wear in combination of other items, such as pictures of fighter jets, camo netting or even audio such as famous music from the movie Top Gun could violate Afterburner’s trade dress.

The Corps Group has appealed the decision. Borneman said he hopes the judge would overrule the trademarks, and allow Corps Group speakers to freely use their experience in public speaking.

The Corps Group has filed a “judgment notwithstanding a verdict,” calling on the judge to make changes to the injunctions they face.

If the judge doesn’t act, the company plans to appeal to the appellate court in Georgia.

The April ruling is “basically saying we can’t share who we are, or who we were and what we learned,” Borneman said. “That I can’t get up in a room even though I was a Marine F-18 pilot with almost 3,000 hours of flight time in the F-18, with five different deployments and combat time. I can’t get up in front of an audience and represent myself. I can’t do that. I can’t show pictures of jets, and I can’t teach the processes I learned during my 16 years in the military.”

Afterburner issued a statement in April saying that the company has “come under attack due to the spread of misinformation by, apparently, a small group of former Corps Group presenters.”

“In a desperate attempt to cast Afterburner in a negative light during the trial, these individuals falsely stated that we are attempting to prohibit all veterans from wearing their flight suits,” the statement reads. “This is absolutely untrue. Unfortunately, this misinformation was repeated in various blogs. The truth of the matter is that Afterburner was and is only trying to protect itself from unfair competition.”

Afterburner states that it filed the trademark suit to protect itself from the Corps Group, who tried to create a “mirror-image company.” The trademark on the flight suit and the terms was awarded in 2011.

“Afterburner is not attempting nor will attempt to prevent veterans from wearing flight suits in their personal or public speaking endeavors, and never will,” Afterburner said. “We are a veteran-owned-and-operated company that has the utmost respect and admiration for our brothers and sisters in arms who proudly wear their flight suits while sharing their experiences, and have been a proud supporter of veterans programs since our founding.”

The Corps Group, Borneman said, is “not backing down on this. We believe this isn’t just focused on us. They’ll use this to intimidate others. That’s the challenge we have.”

Afterburner did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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