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The Nose

Wreck-N-Effect

Posted 9/23/1998

In a mid-September press release, Rent-A-Wreck of America hailed record annual earnings and heaps of other happy news. The Owings Mills­based car-rental agency has been busy celebrating its 25th year and basking in the media glow: news stories, mentions on Oprah and Rosie and The Tonight Show; the company was even the answer to a clue in The New York Times crossword puzzle.

But what the peppy epistle omits is a teensy detail that just might have something--other than silver-anniversary bells--to do with Rent-A-Wreck's newfound notoriety. The $4.7 million firm has made a feisty name for itself in the car-rental industry of late by bucking what it casts as a billionaire foe's attempt to take its figurative thumb and mush Rent-A-Wreck into the ground.

After getting what it purports to be the raw end of a settlement deal in a patent suit filed by the St. Louis­based car-rental giant Enterprise Rent-A-Car this past spring, the Maryland company's honchos appealed the settlement (with the support of nearly every other company in the business, according to Rent-A-Wreck officials) and asked U.S. Rep. Ben Cardin (D-Md.) to push for changes in federal trademark laws--and he's actually considering the matter.

The issue at hand is a single phrase: "We'll pick you up." It's a staple of the ads of just about everyone in the car-rental business, much the way both McDonald's and Burger King tout all-beef patties. Rent-A-Wreck claims it has used "pick up" in its marketing campaigns for years. But last summer, around the time the company started running radio ads with the tag line, "And of course, they'll pick you up," Enterprise trademarked three slogans with variations on the theme: "Pick Enterprise. We'll pick you up," "Pick the company that picks you up," and "We'll pick you up." In April, Enterprise--which does $3.7 billion in business a year--filed a trademark-infringement suit in federal court in St. Louis, claiming Rent-A-Wreck had caused it "irreparable harm" by stealing its magic motto.

A month and a half later, a judge ruled in Enterprise's favor, forcing Rent-A-Wreck to cease use of the "pick you up" line. (The company blames the ruling, at least in part, on Enterprise's home-court advantage.) A little more than a month after that, Enterprise sued Hertz on the same issue; a month or so later, Advantage took the offensive by suing Enterprise. All of which has Rent-A-Wreck on a get-even tear.

"They were picking on us to test the waters," says Ken Blum Jr. , Rent-A-Wreck president. "But they really grabbed the tiger by the tail. They didn't know they were going to get a fight out of us."

Rent-A-Wreck appealed the settlement and, professing industrywide support, contacted Cardin (whose 3rd District includes Owings Mills) earlier this month. The company is asking the congressman to push legislation to require that companies be apprised of an industry rival's pending trademark applications, allowing them to contest trademarks before they're granted. Cardin "is reviewing the situation and looking into it," his press secretary Susan Sullan says. In the meantime Rent-A-Wreck's Blum is slated to testify in the Enterprise-Hertz case, as an "expert witness."

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