A trademark fight over the word 'Mormon'

A statue of Brigham Young, an early leader of the Mormon Church, stands in front of the Mormon Temple in Salt Lake City, Utah. Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Would Brigham Young approve of the unlicensed use of "Mormon" for internet dating sites?

Could the Catholic Church trademark a crucifix? Could the Jewish faith corner the market on the Star of David?

Obviously not, since the symbols of these thousands-of-years-old religions are firmly in the public domain. But what about a newer faith, established in a time of more robust intellectual property protections?

This is the gist of the debate going on in Texas, where the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS) is currently waging a legal battle with a dating site called Mormon Match over its use of the word "Mormon".

Intellectual Reserve Inc., the holding company for the LDS church, has a trademark on the word, as well as "Book of Mormon", "Mormon.org", "Mormon Tabernacle Choir", "The Mormon Church", "Mormon handicraft" and an outline of the Mormon temple in Salt Lake City, Utah.

The Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF) - which bills itself as "the leading non-profit organisation defending civil liberties in the digital world" - filed a friend-of-the-court brief last week in support of Jonathan Eller, the founder of Texas-based Mormon Match, as he tries to get a federal judge to permit him to use the word.

"The name of this service simply describes what it's doing - matching up Mormons," EFF's Corynne McSherry said in a statement. "Trademarks are supposed to be used to protect from unfair competition, not to stifle a small business or to control language."

Eric Hawkins, an LDS spokesperson, presented the church's position in a statement to ABC News:

We have made repeated attempts to resolve the issue without litigation, as we have in many comparable disputes over the years, including similar trademark applications. The objection of the church is that a for-profit business is trying to deceptively capitalise on the church's name and image to promote a product that has no affiliation with the church. By attempting to trademark the name, the group seeks to claim exclusive rights to use a term that is clearly associated with the church.

"When is a Mormon not a Mormon?" asks the consumerist's Kate Cos. "When he's a 'Mormon (trademark).'"

Jezebel's Kelly Faircloth says that it seems the LDS Church doesn't want anyone "making bank" off the Mormon name. She notes that both Mr Eller and his co-founder are Mormons.

"The next church barbecue is going to be really uncomfortable," she writes.

It's not the first time the LDS church has employed its lawyers to battle what it sees as intellectual property infringement. In 2007 it prevented a coffee shop in Utah from printing a likeness of the angel Moroni, whose statue stands atop many Mormon temples, in newspaper adverts.

"A standard criticism of the church is that it's more a business venture than a religion," writes Religion Dispatches' Holly Welker. "Actions like this lend credibility to the claim, and you'd think the church wouldn't want to make it seem any more valid."

According to Ars Technica, a federal judge in Texas will hold a hearing in the Mormon Match case on 8 August.