McDonald's may win in court over teen's charity name, but losing big in court of public opinion

The ongoing saga of Chicago teenager Lauren McClusky and her fight to keep the name McFest attached to her charity concert event -- even as McDonald's attorneys seek to block her from doing so -- now involves an ocean liner, thousands of comments from AOL users, and public relations people who refuse to speak about the matter other than through prepared McStatements.

McClusky became a mini-celebrity in her home town and beyond Tuesday, as the WalletPop exclusive about McDonald's seeking to block the trademark application for her charity concert series name made the front page of the Chicago Sun-Times. National news outlets from Inside Edition to Fox News have flooded the office of her father Jeff McClusky, an independent record promoter, with phone calls seeking interviews.

Lauren's story has also been picked up by the Huffington Post and generated more than 70,000 views an hour on AOL -- and more than 1 million page views total.
Not that McClusky, 19, was around to enjoy any of the attention, or the thousands cheering her on with promises to boycott McDonald's as a result of her troubles. She's on an ocean liner somewhere between Hawaii and Japan as part of the
Semester at Sea program.

"The last time I checked, [more than 3,000] people had commented on the original AOL story," McClusky said in a statement via email. "Others have set up Facebook pages for me and are talking about the story on Twitter. It's amazing. I couldn't have anticipated such a response."

To recap: WalletPop reported last week how McClusky has spent $5,000 of the money she raised at her last McFest concert this past summer -- money she hoped to donate to Special Olympics Chicago -- to hire lawyers in response to McDonald's objections to her seeking a name trademark. McDonald's, in its legal filing with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, claims the rights to a slew of McNames, from McJob to the prefix "Mc" itself.

That's upset McClusky, who picked the name McFest for her concert series because her last name is, well, McClusky. And she had reason to be proud of her local concerts, which to date have raised some $30,000 for Special Olympics Chicago.

The story now takes a new twist, as McClusky has until Feb. 8 to drop her pursuit of the McFest trademark. Otherwise, the legal procedure for the trademark filing could proceed to trial, with a tentative date set for Dec. 5, 2010.

"I want to stress that I have never had anything against McDonald's. I hope everyone involved can take the high road, and that McDonald's will join my efforts, rather than fight. I'd love to see McDonald's do the right thing and get behind this event, and I'd gladly welcome them on board as sponsors and supporters."

But don't expect that to happen any time soon, or for McDonald's to come out of McCorporate hiding. Despite repeated requests for a person-to-person interview with a McDonald's representative, not even the Hamburglar offered to step forward and answer some very basic questions. Instead, McDonald's spokesperson Ashlee Yingling delivered a prepared statement, which included the following remarks:

"Just to be clear, we haven't sued the event organizers. We are simply contesting their ability to register this mark. Rest assured, McDonald's has no desire to prevent this event from taking place. That has never been our intent. And, this has been our position since we first contacted the event organizers about this matter."

Yet the actions of McDonald's have put a dent in McClusky's funding and enthusiasm; her efforts for McFest also include a charity record label, McFest Music, and a $500 McFest cash award she recently presented to a deserving student at her high school alma mater, Woodlands Academy in Lake Forest, Ill.

While Yingling maintains that "we have made several attempts to resolve this matter amicably, because we recognize this event is for charity fundraising," McClusky and those close to McFest dispute that characterization, citing the sometimes tense nature of the legal back and forth between McClusky's paid and pro bono attorneys and those hired by McDonald's. Because McDonald's won't address direct questions about the "McFight," as the Sun-Times labeled it, it's impossible to confirm any details related to its side of the story, or what compromises it might entertain.

To be sure, McDonald's does have an ample legal leg to stand on; the copyrights it claims to hold to all those "McNames" do indeed exist. But in the court of public opinion, McClusky appears the clear winner, with the next possible casualty a public relations debacle for the burger giant. To top things off, the story comes even as McDonald's was ordered to pay big in a Dutch court for firing a worker over serving an extra slice of cheese. The court ordered McDonald's to pay the worker the salary for the remaining five months of her contract: a total of 4,265.47 euros.

Closer to home, countless AOL users are talking McBoycott (thought it remains to be seen how that will hold up in the face of a Big Mac Attack). Regardless, those on AOL comment board have made overwhelmingly clear that you don't win friends and influence people by blockading a teen with charitable ambitions.

"Perhaps Yuengling [beer] should consider suing McDonalds spokeswoman Ashlee Yingling for having a last name too similar to their brand name," wrote an irate reader. "If I was a member of their private corporation I would be concerned that her last name would associate my product with ... McStupidity."

And a self-styled expert on Scottish genealogy seemed puzzled that McDonald's could somehow lay claim to a prefix connected to so many of his hale and hearty clansmen. "I take strong offense at the actions of McDonald's attempt at possession of the prefix, Mc, as is a part of many of the names of Scots or Irish ancestry," wrote one Rone Ross. "For although I am of the Clan Ross, there are many sub-Clans (septs) in the family of Clan Ross that hold the birthright of Mc, such as McMillan, McTavish. By the like, there are many of Irish ancestry who also hold by birthright the prefix Mc, including the full surname, McDonald."

Ross suggested a solution that would perhaps do Braveheart proud: "I would suggest that the members of any of the clans, either Irish or Scots, file protests, and if necessary, legal action against the business of McDonald."

Meanwhile, somewhere on the high seas half a world away from bonnie Scotland and black Angus burgers, McClusky pointed out the irony McDonald's itself has failed to publicly acknowledge: The fast-food titan also supports Special Olympics, and has been a big leader in charitable causes with the formation of great programs such as Ronald McDonald House. Which is why she remains hopeful of resolution, yet ultimately confused and concerned.

Or, in a word, McAnxious.

"I don't have a law degree. I'm just a young woman who wants to make a difference," McClusky wrote. "But no matter what any corporate lawyer says, McFest will always be McFest in my heart. It helps so many Special Olympic kids in Chicago. Why take away my name, my funds and my event? It matters not just to me, but more importantly, the Special Olympic kids who get so much from it."

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