Kiwi man wins legal battle with mormon church over a family affair

The National Business Review, New Zealand/July 16, 2009

An Auckland man has seen off a legal challenge from the giant mormon church over the trademark for his family location internet service, with the Court of Appeal today ruling against the religious organisation.

The Court of Appeal decision brings a close to seven years of legal wrangling between Robert Sintes and the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints over the use of the words ‘family search’.

The church operates a website at which offers free family history, family tree and genealogy records and research, but came down hard on Mr Sintes soon after he launched his own family contact service in 2000.

Mr Sintes first ran into trouble with the organisation when he launched the New Zealand Family Tracing Service, and when he filed an application for a trademark incorporating the words ‘family search’ in 2005, mormon company Intellectual Reserve filed an opposition to his claim.

Four years later and after being dismissed in the High Court, the Court of Appeal has also found in favour of Mr Sintes, saying his use of the mark would not indicate a connection in the course of trade with Intellectual Reserve.

Although Intellectual Reserve could still take the case to the Supreme Court, Mr Sintes told NBR that as far as he was concerned, the matter was "by and large" settled.

He originally started his service after finally getting in touch with family members in the late 1990s, after he had lost contact with them, following a move to New Zealand as a child in 1949.

Mr Sintes said he set up his family search service in an attempt to share his own experiences with other people looking for lost family members, but had no inkling of the legal battle that would result.

"I was just looking to offer a social service when I was suddenly attacked by the third largest religious organization in the world. I was just trying to help people, driven by my own separation from my family after the war, and I can’t even begin to describe what it felt to be confronted with agencies that tried to destroy my efforts instead of help."

While he estimated he has reunited about 200 families since launching his service, Mr Sintes said there was no money to be made in the endeavour, but that had not stopped the mormon organization from spending an estimated half a million dollars fighting his trademark.

"People who have contributed funds to this group have had their money wasted in this case. I just feel sad for the people who have had their money wasted in fruitless exercises like this."

Mr Sintes said the task of reuniting familles, and finding the time, resources and emotional strength to do so, was hard enough, and seven years of legal hassle did not help.

With the case consuming both time and money, Mr Sintes said Intellectual Reserve were grasping at straws, but using the "weight of their purse" to pursue the issue.

"These words we have been arguing about are among the top 2% of commonly used words in the English language. They just have an endless supply of other people’s money, which they then go and waste in the pursuing and corralling of common words."

He said New Zealand was not the only territory targeted by the church in this way.

"They have gone around the world, threatening others to give up domain names and forcing them out purely by weight of money. People have given up domain names they are legally and morally entitled to.

"They attempted the same with me, Originally, they tried to take my domain name, and when they abandoned that, they tried to take the trademark. They might have got away with it, but they had pushed me to the point where I would not give in and it feels good to have the court back me up."

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