The Chile Crunch Trademark Dispute: Navigating Trademark Rights and Cultural Heritage

A recent trademark dispute over the term "chile crunch" has brought to light complex issues surrounding intellectual property rights, cultural heritage, and the dynamics between large corporations and small businesses. This case, involving Momofuku Goods and several independent food brands, sheds light on the numerous challenges of trademark protection in the context of culturally significant products.


Igor Demcak

Details of the Case

In March 2024, Momofuku Goods, a part of David Chang's renowned culinary empire, initiated legal action against seven smaller companies, alleging infringement of their trademark rights over the term "chile crunch." This move was part of a broader strategy following Momofuku's successful acquisition of the trademark rights for the "chile crunch" mark from Denver-based company Chile Colonial in 2023. While Momofuku has not yet secured the registered trademark for "chili crunch," they began the registration process with the USPTO on March 29, a procedure that typically takes about a year.

In response to Momofuku's enforcement actions, small businesses like Homiah, a Malaysian food brand based in New York, and Seattle-based Chinese food brand MìLà, found themselves at the center of a contentious trademark dispute. These companies, known for their unique culinary offerings deeply rooted in cultural heritage, faced the daunting challenge of defending their products against a corporate giant while navigating complex legal terrain. The cease-and-desist letters sent to these companies by Momofuku's legal team sparked a public outcry and raised significant questions about the fairness and implications of such actions.

Overview of Claims

Momofuku's claim rests on the premise that they own the trademark for the term "chile crunch," which they argue protects their product identity and prevents consumer confusion. From a legal perspective, trademark owners have a responsibility to police the use of their marks to prevent dilution or unauthorized use by others. Failure to do so can weaken the distinctiveness of the mark and jeopardize its legal protection.

On the other hand, small businesses like Homiah and MìLà argue that the term "chile crunch" is a generic or descriptive term widely used in Asian cuisines, predating Momofuku's trademark registration. They highlight the cultural significance of this condiment and its long history in culinary traditions across various Asian communities. This case raises questions about the balance between protecting trademarks and respecting cultural heritage and common culinary terminology.

Cultural Significance and Trademark Protection

The term "chili crunch" or "chili crisp" refers to a spicy chili-infused oil condiment with crispy elements, deeply rooted in Asian culinary traditions. It's not merely a product but a symbol of cultural exchange and culinary innovation. Trademark law aims to protect brands and prevent consumer confusion, but it must also consider the broader cultural context in which certain terms or products exist.

The controversy surrounding this dispute reflects a broader issue of cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation. While companies have the right to protect their intellectual property, they must do so in a way that acknowledges and respects cultural heritage. In this case, the term "chile crunch" is not a proprietary creation but a common descriptor for a type of condiment enjoyed by diverse communities.

Momofuku's initial legal strategy, including sending cease-and-desist letters to small businesses, sparked backlash and negative publicity. The public perception of trademark enforcement in this case shifted from protecting innovation to stifling cultural diversity and small business creativity. Social media and public commentary played a significant role in highlighting these concerns and pressuring Momofuku to reconsider its approach. Less than a couple of weeks since the dispute went public, David Chang announced that his company would no longer enforce its trademark.

Takeaway: Balancing Rights and Responsibilities

The chile crunch trademark dispute underscores the complexities of navigating intellectual property rights in a global marketplace with deep cultural ties. While trademark protection is essential for businesses, it must be balanced with respect for cultural heritage, community values, and fair competition among businesses. This case serves as a reminder of the ongoing dialogue needed between legal frameworks, business practices, and societal expectations to ensure a harmonious and inclusive environment for innovation and creativity in all industries.

Igor Demcak
Igor Demcak

Trademark Attorney

Founder & CEO of Trama

7 year experience in IP protection

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