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General Conference Corporation Sues Pathfinder Shirts LLC

The General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists has sued a small Florida-based company, Pathfinder Shirts, LLC, over what the General Conference says is unauthorized use of the Adventist Church’s trademarks. The General Conference is not seeking monetary damages but seeks to stop Pathfinder Shirts from selling products emblazoned with church logos.

The company’s co-owners, Michael and Karen Lillard, represented by legal firm Watson LLP, have argued that the lawsuit has unfairly singled them out. They further have asserted that the church has failed to self-police its trademarks to such an extent that the marks have lost trademark significance. They filed a counterclaim alleging damages resulting from being barred from attending Pathfinder events and have sought damages from the General Conference.

Converts to Adventism
The Lillards, former Presbyterians, converted to the Seventh-day Adventist faith as a result of Bible studies in the 1980s. They became members in 1982 and got involved in church-related programs, including Pathfinders. They began making Pathfinder items for the club their children attended and soon other churches asked, “Can you do this for us, too?”

They owned a clothing store, Tropic Tees, and sold Pathfinders items on the side, but interest in their Pathfinders-related clothing grew. The Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists recommended the Lillards’ services to fledgling Pathfinders clubs and extended them invitations to attend Pathfinders camporees.

The business grew in the late 1980s to include other ministries of the local conference—women’s and men’s ministries, prison ministries, and more. They became Florida Conference’s go-to supplier for clothing and Pathfinder honors and patches. All the while, the Lillards held numerous positions in their local congregation: deacons and elders, Sabbath School teachers, church treasurer, Pathfinders staff, Adventurers directors, music ministry directors, and more. They became members of Adventist Layman’s Services and Industries (ASI), and Karen served on the Florida Conference Executive Committee and the Florida Pathfinders Counsel. In addition to integration with the Florida Conference, Michael Lillard says they received encouragement from Norman Middag, who in the 80s and 90s was youth director for the Florida Conference and went on to start AdventSource.

By the early 90s, the Lillards sold church-related paraphernalia exclusively. They owned Manna Tees Witness Wear, a business with the tagline “Man does not live by bread alone but by every shirt printed with the word of God.” It was literally true; the shirt printing business was and remains their livelihood. They attended and operated vendor booths at General Conference Sessions. They attended North American Division Youth Ministries events and division-wide camporees. Wherever they went, they networked with Pathfinder clubs in needs of pins, patches, clothing, and other items. And everywhere they went, there were many other vendors selling Pathfinder items, they observed.

The Internet provided a platform for expanding their business and selling to Pathfinder clubs outside of North America. They started selling items online through the Pathfindershirts.com website. The Inter-American Division with its growing Adventist membership became a significant portion of the Lillard’s business.

The General Conference Says Stop
In September, 2011, the Lillards received a cease and desist notice from General Conference legal counsel, asking them to stop selling products with church logos on them. A few months later, a second cease and desist letter arrived, this one from the secretary of the General Conference. The Lillards sought their own legal counsel.

The General Conference asked the Lillards to sign a licensing agreement if they wanted to continue selling merchandise with Adventist insignia. Michael Lillard said in a phone interview for this story, “We would have signed these contracts, but lawyers advised against it because they [the GC] could shut us down.” He said that they stopped selling some items at the General Conference’s insistence, but the website continued advertising items that included copyrighted Adventist Church logos.

In court documents, the Lillards asserted that they entered into a 2014 contract with the International Pathfinder Camporee to sell merchandise at the Oshkosh, Wisconsin, camporee. However, in a letter from the General Conference Office of General Counsel dated July 23, 2014, the Lillards were informed that they were not permitted to attend the camporee as vendors in light of the ongoing negotiations with the General Conference Corporation over licensing of the name Pathfinders.

In 2015, after going back and forth with the General Conference, the Lillards incorporated Pathfinder Shirts, LLC in Altamonte Springs, Florida. The business’s brick and mortar location is across a driveway from the Florida Conference of Seventh-day Adventists headquarters.

On July 29, 2016, the General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists filed a lawsuit against Pathfinder Shirts, LLC, alleging copyright infringement and illegal use of the church’s intellectual property by a for-profit company.

The General Conference said in a media release,

The lawsuit, General Conference Corporation v Pathfinder Shirts, LLC and filed in Federal Court in Orlando, Florida, stipulates that Pathfinder Shirts, LLC have used a retail store and website where they sell merchandise that violates the trademarks and copyrights held by the Seventh-day Adventist Church.

The General Conference Corporation has listed the Pathfinder logo and the Seventh-day Adventist logo among its registered trademarks.  

North American Division Communication Director Dan Weber, speaking on behalf of the Adventist Church in this case, stated that the Adventist Church “vigorously protects its trademarks and other intellectual property and does not license to any non-church entities the use of either its name or logo.” The General Conference employs “systematic protocol to monitor and protect its trademarks and other intellectual property,” he said.

Weber also stated that the Adventist Church relies upon employees and members to report instances of infringement that they become aware of. When the General Conference becomes aware that a non-licensed organization is making use of the church’s intellectual property for commercial gain, it will pursue it and take appropriate action. “The Adventist Church has the responsibility to faithfully steward its resources, including its need to defend its trademarks and other intellectual property,” he said.

AdventSource is the official distributer of Pathfinder materials and products and the exclusive distributer of certain materials like investiture resources. The General Conference has licensed non-investiture items to entities that have applied for a license to sell and distribute them.

Response and Counterclaim
In response to the lawsuit, counsel for the Lillards asserted that the General Conference Corporation of Seventh-day Adventists has abandoned six of its registered marks by failing to “properly self-police alleged infringements and entered into naked license agreements without sufficient quality controls, such that each mark has lost trademark significance within the meaning of 15 U.S.C. § 1127.”

The Lillards also assert that the General Conference “has been aware of Defendants’ use of its intellectual property since the 1980s and neglected to institute any infringement proceedings until 2016, which causes prejudice to Defendants. In addition, [the General Conference] has been aware of the repeated use of its intellectual property in commerce for decades and has not enforced its rights, if any, that still exist.”

The Lillards filed a counterclaim stating that when the General Conference barred them from attending the International Camporee, they suffered monetary damages. The Lillards have asked for “recovery of general damages, special damages, prejudgment interest, attorneys’ fees, costs, and any such further relief as the court deems just and proper.”

As of this article’s publication, the Lillards continue doing business through Pathfinder Shirts LLC and its website, including selling merchandise with the Seventh-day Adventist logo and the Pathfinder logo. Business has taken a hit because of the General Conference’s barring the Lillards from attending events in the North American Division. However, especially outside of North America, demand for their products remains high.

The Lillards said by phone that the lawsuit has left them feeling betrayed by the church they joined back in the 80s. “We feel totally betrayed. They were instrumental in making us what we are today,” Michael said of church leaders. “All we’ve done is support the church all these years. They singled us out and want to nail us to a cross. Why just us?”

Karen Lillard said she hopes the lawsuit will result in a fundamental change. “What they’re doing is wrong. Whether we come out on top or bottom, we hope no one will be treated like this in future. We hope standards will be created for fairness.”

The General Conference Corporation said in response to the charge of singling out the Lillards:

The Adventist Church makes every effort to resolve all its intellectual property enforcement matters in a Christian and amicable way. The vast majority of these situations resolve with either the individuals deciding to cease use of trademarks, or negotiating permission for use. In situations where individuals or members are exploiting the Church’s intellectual property for personal gain and profit, the Church must act to protect its identity. Despite several years of good faith negotiation, the situation with the Lillards is one of the few cases where we have not been able to come to a good faith resolution.

The General Conference’s position is that the Lillards must respect the Church’s intellectual property and stop using the church’s name and intellectual property for personal, for-profit business without permission.

 

Jared Wright is Southern California Correspondent for Spectrummagazine.org.

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