The Wall Street Journal finds that Travelers Insurance won’t share its umbrella

Today’s Wall Street Journal front page features an article titled, “Travelers Doesn’t Want to Share its Umbrella,” about Travelers Insurance threatening suit against virtually every company that uses an umbrella as part of its logo – including Totes Isotoner Corp., the maker of…umbrellas.

According to the article, written by Wall Street Journal reporter Leslie Scism, Travelers — the $27 billion insurance giant — “has challenged at least 30 trademark applications across a range of industries, according to U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records.”

The article interviews, among others, the head of a small Anchorage, Alaska consulting company called Human Resource Umbrella LLC, which received a threatening letter from Travelers because of the umbrella it hangs over the double “l” in its name. Apparently Travelers and the small Alaska firm agreed to a compromise whereby the smaller company would not make its umbrella red and will not use it for anything insurance related.

It is widely known, at least in legal circles, that if a company does not fiercely protect its trademark, it runs the risk of losing it. For example, if Apple, Inc. fails to stop even the smallest of electronics companies from using an apple in its logos, then if a large competitor comes along with a variation on Apple’s theme, that other company can allege that the symbol is already in the public domain.

What makes the Travelers situation fairly unique is that umbrellas have long been a metaphor for protection and inclusion – in the arts, in business and most notably, in the insurance field. That is why the term “umbrella policy” is ubiquitous in the insurance industry, sold by hundreds, if not thousands of companies, including Travelers. It does not seem like a stretch to imagine many companies would want to use some form of an umbrella in their logos.

That is a quite different situation from that of Apple. Other technology companies would be hard-pressed to assert that computers and fruit were intertwined long before Apple came along.

As for umbrella-maker Totes, the article says it withdrew its trademark application last year after Travelers filed its copyright-infringement lawsuit against it. Despite pulling the trademark application, though, Totes is apparently still using a red umbrella in its online marketing, which the umbrella maker says it has been doing for years – with no customers confused that they thought they were buying insurance policies rather than umbrellas. Let’s see if Totes’ umbrella continues to provide it with the protection the symbol implies.