The London Omnibus And its Impact on U.S. Trademark Law

Omnibus Photo by DaveIf you are traveling to London in August (as I am right now), you don’t have to go far before you start soaking in this great city’s contribution to trademark law. In fact, the very first thing many tourists encounter when they arrive in London – the Paddington Station taxi stand – had a significant impact on U.S. trademark jurisprudence over a hundred years before the Lanham Act. That case, decided in August 1836, was Knott v. Morgan.

In the 1830’s, Mr. Knott and his partners had a profitable business running omnibuses – large horse-drawn trolleys – to and from train stations, including the precursor to the modern Paddington station. Mr. Knott dubbed his business with the geographically descriptive moniker, the “London Conveyance Company.” When Mr. Robert Morgan started using the same name for his own competing omnibus service, Mr. Knott brought suit before the “Rolls Court.” Mr. Knott faced a bit of an uphill battle, because equity courts were traditionally loath to issue injunctions in disputes between tradesmen over business names.

However, Lord Langdale (the “Master of Rolls”) found that Mr. Morgan wasn’t just using the name, but that he had also painted his omnibuses (and dressed his drivers) to look just like those owned by Mr. Knott, including a green and gold color scheme with specific emblems, such as stars and garters. According to Lord Langdale, Mr. Morgan’s use of the same colors and emblems demonstrated an intent to deceive the public and hitch a free ride on Mr. Knott’s good will. Lord Langdale ordered an injunction against Mr. Morgan’s continued use of the name and, on appeal, the Lord Chancellor affirmed.

As early as 1840, Knott v. Morgan was received as precedent into U.S. trademark jurisprudence as the quintessential example of unfair competition, and it has been described as the earliest-known case in which a “symbol” or “device” was found to define a trade or service mark. It was frequently cited by numerous U.S. Courts for nearly 100 years. Fittingly, the last such citation was in the 1923 case of Yellow Cab v. Creasman, in which the North Carolina Supreme Court blessed an injunction against the owner of an Asheville livery company who had painted his cars yellow in order to imitate the plaintiff’s popular Yellow taxis.

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