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This Moroni is protected

By Daily Herald - | Mar 28, 2007

To some, the recent angel Moroni coffee flap is a reminder of Mormon Elder Paul H. Dunn’s warning about there being too many long-faced Mormons running around.

A Taylorsville coffee shop, Just Add Coffee, was asked by the LDS Church to stop using an image of the angel Moroni on T-shirts in its promotional campaign. The image was a modified photograph of a golden Moroni sculpture atop an LDS temple. The angel’s trumpet was bent upward, and a hand from heaven was pouring coffee into the bell from a giant coffee pot.

The church warned the coffee shop, which is known for its irreverent line of clothing, that the image was a registered trademark and asked it to stop selling the shirts.

The shirts took a good-natured swipe at the LDS Church’s code suggesting that members should not drink coffee, though not everyone would laugh. Moroni is a key figure in the church’s scripture and is taken seriously by many devout members. He is recorded as the last prophet to contribute to the Book of Mormon and as the heavenly messenger who delivered messages from God to Joseph Smith.

Of course, this is not the first time Moroni has been depicted in a humorous vein. Far from it. Virtually all of Utah’s political cartoonists have taken a jab at the golden trumpeter it at one time or another. Many good Mormons have joined in.

Elder J. Golden Kimball, a president of the LDS Quorum of the Seventy in the last century known for damning and helling in church meetings, along with other more salty language, once joked that if Moroni ever blew his trumpet he would spray pigeon feces (he used a different word) all over the Hotel Utah and other buildings on the east side of Main Street.

Because Moroni is so well known in these parts, many would argue that the church’s intellectual property office, Intellectual Reserve Inc., might need to lighten up and get a sense of humor. The angel, after all, is in the public domain, along with the entire text of the Book of Mormon, and he’s fair game for humor.

It’s just that the particular angel depicted on the shirts belongs to the church.

The statue in the picture is protected as intellectual property, and it is trademarkable. A trademark is shorthand not only for an organization’s name but for its values and traditions. Trademarks are zealously guarded by their owners to preserve a public message or image.

In other words, if the Taylorsville coffee shop had drawn its own version of Moroni, there would have been no infringement. But you cannot legally make commercial use of an image that belongs to someone else.

Somehow we doubt that modified photographs of Moroni’s graven image are likely ever to reach such proportions that the church’s trademark interest would be compromised — but you never know. We understand why the church asserted its rights in this case. If a trademark is allowed to be used without permission, it loses its value and original meaning. It can become a generic term for things of widely varying quality. Our language is already littered with trademarks that were not adequately defended, including aspirin, escalator, kerosene and trampoline.

Companies zealously watch their trademarks and issue warnings to those who abuse them. Fewer people use the term “Xerox” as a synonym for photocopying than might otherwise use it if Xerox Corp.’s trademark lawyers had not been vigilant. Same goes for Band-Aid.

The LDS Church uses Moroni images in a variety of ways. The image once adorned the covers of The Book of Mormon and is used on some of the awards the church gives to its youth. Moroni can also be seen on neckties and other articles of clothing approved by the church. The image is sometimes displayed on the tombstones of LDS military dead.

Just Add Coffee’s use of the Moroni photo was amusing, but it was inappropriate. While the church is mature enough to take a little satire in stride, it shouldn’t have to take shots from people using its own images. Let the critics make their own art.

This story appeared in The Daily Herald on page A6.


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