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Debra J. Saunders
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The Godfather's Italian Table

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"Godfather" director Francis Ford Coppola is a big shot — and not just in the film world. As a vintner and restaurateur, Coppola apparently sees himself as the capo di tutti capi — the boss of all bosses — who owns the Italian dictionary. Last year, Coppola won a U.S. trademark for the phrase "a tavola" — Italian for "to the table" (or, in American English, "come and get it"). It seems the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office also thinks Coppola owns a piece of the Italian language.

Last week, Coppola filed a lawsuit against the Tavola Italian Kitchen in Novato, Calif., on the grounds that the restaurant's use of the Italian word for table constitutes "trademark infringement, unfair competition" and false advertising, among other misdeeds.

"This has all come as a big shock to us," Tavola Italian Kitchen co-owner Jon Paul Pirraglia told me. "Tavola" is "a generic word" in Italian dining. Trademarking "tavola" is "like trying to trademark 'alfresco.'"

The lawsuit might make sense if one of Coppola's restaurants were named Tavola. None is. His Geyserville, Calif., restaurant is named Rustic; his San Francisco eatery is Cafe Zoetrope. "A tavola," Rustic's website explains, is the eating style used there on Tuesday nights. "Instead of ordering from menus, the chef prepares a variety of dishes and sends them to your table," its website explains. "It's a great way to enjoy a meal and a lot of fun for the whole family."

Lucky for Coppola, no one (else) has a trademark on "fun for the whole family."

The Coppola Family Trust's attorney refused to comment on the case.

Likewise, Coppola's press person would not talk on the record.

From reading lawsuit documents, however, I see the nub of Coppola's case: Might makes right.

In 2008, Coppola applied for a U.S. trademark on "a tavola." It was granted in 2011. When the Pirraglia family's Connecticut-based business — which operates three other restaurants — applied for a trademark for "Tavola Italian Kitchen," the Patent and Trademark Office initially turned down Tavola, citing a "likelihood of confusion" in light of the Coppola family's claim to the word "tavola." The Coppola complaint then charged that the Pirraglias willfully set out to confuse consumers by luring unsuspecting bon vivants tooling up the 101 freeway toward the wine country.

There's no way, the Pirraglias told me over the phone, that customers would think they are a Coppola production. The Pirraglias are proud of their Italian-only wine list and their handcrafted meals. Still, padrone Anthony Pirraglia explained, "we're a small restaurant in a Safeway shopping center."

If the Pirraglia family business had checked into a trademark, Fenwick and West trademark attorney Sally Abel told me, it would have found "three different companies with 'tavola'-based marks with similar services." Abel also told me that in order for a term to be protectable, "it has to be distinctive."

It turns out that despite all the hype about providing an authentic Italian family dining experience, Rustic's legal claim on "tavola" as a trademark is based on a Portuguese translation of the word.

Some might argue that this is a typical food fight in the cutthroat restaurant world. Or, to quote from "The Godfather'': "It's nothing personal, Sonny. It's strictly business."

Email Debra J. Saunders at dsaunders@sfchronicle.com. To find out more about Debra J. Saunders and read features by other Creators Syndicate writers and cartoonists, visit the Creators Syndicate Web page at www.creators.com.

COPYRIGHT 2012 CREATORS.COM



Comments

1 Comments | Post Comment
Ma'am;...The subjects you choose for the illumination of your opinion makes me believe you have hair inside and outside of your head...If we were all to make lists of the laws, customs, behaviors, and people we think are really, really stupid; we would all run out of ink and paper long before our lists were complete... It is for this reason that most people concentrate on the positive, the fine, and the exemplary; for the economy of ink, paper, and memory...

Understanding that there is a point to patents, tradmarks, and copyrights is enough for most folks... I have personally never found a better way of doing anything without sharing it just as soon... If my object were to make money on what I have discovered, I would make a little money, and the world would gain as little.. But what does the world gain with such disputes over common property??? We always have people trying to fence off the commonwealth for themselves... They do not think about who may still hold the ultimate title... If they think they can possibly own with debased currency what another American has already given his life to buy, then they ought to at least pay taxes on it...

As it stands, people can afford to sit on vast tracts that could support many people, and make little off of them simply because the price of doing so is inconsiderable due to unfair taxes... When property supported the country it was forced to make money, or land again on the market -which kept all property values low, and labor value high... Now, people can sit on the land only to deny it to others, and they can afford to -because the taxes are effortless...

You see; if the man wants to keep the word for himself, he should pay a tax on it, and that would require that he make some money on it, or cut it loose to some other person to make money with, and pay taxes on...If the word, or phrase has no value much as the words liberty and justice have no value, it ought to be reserved for those who have no money- which includes just about everybody any more...

You see, Ma'am, that the obvious reason to own more of the commonwealth than one needs, and to own far beyond any rational want, is not simply the pride of ownership... What people want with such ownership is the right to deny it to others who do need it... For that reason, people with such desires should be taxed, because such an attitude so destructive of unity and so contrary to justice and common sense is a luxury that must be bought at great price...

Anyone can use the commonwealth... It has been bought with life, and blood and sweat...It is owned by the whole people as a legacy...No one should believe what is theirs to use -is ever free and clear...It is given as a Fee, an old Feudal term for a return of service... The original cost to government is simple recognition of a relationship between owners and defenders... To invoke another Feudal term; owners have no right to de-fy the people who grant the private use of common property... If their purpose in ownership is only to deny, and for this they refuse fair taxation, they have already conceded their property back to the commonwealth, because the relationship is finished...What do you think... Thanks... Sweeney
Comment: #1
Posted by: James A, Sweeney
Thu Apr 12, 2012 7:31 AM
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