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Would Will Rogers Like Even an Aggressive New York Lawyer?

Years ago, American humorist Will Rogers famously stated, "I have never yet met a man that I didn't like." But would Rogers' claim hold up to a confrontation with a threatening big-city lawyer over an aggressive claim of "unfair competition?"

The Letters of Note blog has a post today with an interesting exchange of letters between William Beverly Winslow, a New York lawyer representing Funk & Wagnalls Company, publishers of The Literary Digest; and Rogers, who was involved in a "moving picture" and later a book called "The Illiterate Digest."

Winslow wrote to Rogers in 1920 on behalf of The Literary Digest, a publication nearly thirty years old at the time that Winslow claimed was "probably the most influential weekly publication in the world." Winslow told Rogers that

"The Illiterate Digest" has been repeatedly called to our attention and we are told that the prestige of "The Literary Digest" is being lowered by the subject matter of your film as well as by the title of your film because the public naturally confuse the two subjects. We are also told that exhibitors are being misled by the similarity of titles and that some of them install your subject in the expectation that they are securing "The Literary Digest Topics of the Day."

I have advised the publishers that they may proceed against you through the Federal Trade Commission in Washington calling upon you to there defend yourself against the charge of "unfair competition," because of your simulation of their title, or that they can proceed against you, the producers of your film, its distributors and exhibitors in court for an injunction restraining you from use of the title, "The Illiterate Digest." 

Before, however, instituting any proceedings in either direction they have suggested that I write directly to you to see if your sense of fairness will not cause you to voluntarily withdraw the use of the objectionable title. 

Rogers' reply, which can be read in its entirety at the Letters of Note blog, was pretty much what you would expect from a humorist in such a situation:

Your letter in regard to my competition with the Literary Digest received and I never felt as swelled up in my life, And am glad you wrote directly to me instead of communicating with my Lawyers, As I have not yet reached that stage of prominence where I was commiting unlawful acts and requireing a Lawyer ...

And now I want to inform you truly that this is the first that I knew my Title of the Illiterate Digest was an infringement on yours as they mean the direct opposite, If a magazine was published called Yes and another Bird put one out called No I suppose he would be infringeing. But you are a Lawyer and its your business to change the meaning of words, so I lose before I start ...

Now you inform your Editors at once that their most dangerous rival has withdrawn, and that they can go ahead and resume publication, But you inform Your clients that if they ever take up Rope Throwing or chewing gum that I will consider it a direct infringement of my rights and will protect it with one of the best Kosher Lawyers in Oklahoma ...

Illiterately yours 


Rogers later wrote in the dedication to his 1924 book, "The Illiterate Digest," that he never received a reply and "thought, oh well, there I go and waste a letter on some High Brow Lawyer with no sense of humor. I was sore at myself for writing it." But about 6 months later, he wrote, Winslow came to see him and was "the nicest old Gentleman I had ever met, especially in the law profession. He was the one I had written the letter to, and he had had Photographic Copies made of my letter and had given them around to all his Lawyer friends. So it is to him and his sense of humor, that I dedicate this Volume of deep thought. ..."

So it looks like Rogers claim that he "never yet met a man that I didn't like" stood up even to the challenge of a big-city lawyer.

Posted by Bruce Carton on April 18, 2012 at 04:39 PM | Permalink | Comments (0)


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