WASHINGTON, DC, May 7, 2013 – The California Milk Processor Board (CMPB), owner of the “got milk?” trademark, threatened civil action against a website created by a nine- and a seven-year-old boy from Maryland last week. The boys’ website, gotsourmilk.com, was created as a part of a science project to identify whether milk was sour without having to sniff it.
Cameron Behram and his little brother Alex got the idea for their project from being asked to sniff milk for freshness regularly by their mother. Disliking the task, the second- and fourth-graders enlisted their father, Steven Behram, to help them come up with a solution.
The boys explain the motivations behind their project in a well-produced video that they put together themselves. Besides not liking the chore of sniffing sour milk, the video informs us that every year over 700,000 gallons of milk are thrown away, not because it has spoiled, but because it has passed the expiration date printed on the packaging and people either don’t bother to sniff it or trust the expiration date over their noses.
As milk ages in the refrigerator, bacteria multiply creating acid that leads to spoilage. However, a conventional ph strip cannot be used to test the acid level in milk without damaging it.
With the help of their dad, the boys developed a simple test strip with a semi permeable membrane that helps consumers determine whether milk has gone bad, despite the date on the label. The strips can be adhered to the lid of a jug or the inside flap of a carton of milk, and as the milk passes over it the decal will change color to indicate whether the milk has spoiled.
Recognizing the genius in their creation, the Behrams want to take their project to the next level, Phase II, by creating an iPhone app that will detect sour milk. Their parents also wanted them to learn how and why business ventures succeed and fail. To raise funds for Phase II as well as their school science program, the boys started a website called gotsourmilk.com.
Soon after launching their site, the family received a letter from a law firm representing CPMB stating that the boys’ website was in violation of the “got milk?” copyright. The letter threatened to pursue a civil lawsuit against the family if the website was not removed immediately.
According to the letter, CMPD and its attorneys believe that the website was “confusingly similar to our client’s ‘got milk’ and the addition of ‘sour’ is not sufficient to alleviate the likelihood of confusion.”
The letter also accuses the nine- and seven-year-olds, as well as their parents, of using the name in bad faith, alleging that the Behrams intentionally used the name to confuse consumers into thinking that CMPD endorses their site. Steve Behram says that the boys came up with the name on their own, “with those three words, my seven and nine-year old boys drew the ire of the milk lobby all the way in California.”
The letter came as a surprise to the boys and their parents.
“It’s weird they’re being so mean because my school buys a lot of milk,” said nine-year-old Cameron Behram.
Steve Behram and his wife tried to explain to their boys why they could not use the name on their site. “They still cannot understand why they are not permitted to utter the phrase: ‘Got sour milk,’ even though it is not copyrighted and it describes their project and efforts perfectly and succinctly,” wrote Steve in an email. “I simply had to explain to them that some words and phrases can no longer be used in the English language, because they may resemble or be close to a copyrighted word or phrase. I am not even certain if I buy my own explanation to my kids.”
The Behrams agreed to rename the website to avoid any legal entanglement with the CMPB, but the project is going ahead under dontbeasourpuss.com. The boys are trying to raise $5,000 to buy a PH-1 meter, probes, solutions, and a chemistry set to continue to produce their test strips and develop their iPhone app. 21% of the funds raised will also go to their school’s science program.
Many believe the CPMB overreacted by going after two young boys with such force. The approach also raises the question of whether the threatened suit is less about a copyright than about the boys developing a product that would potentially make people buy less milk because they would throw less of it away.
“We have to police our trademark,” Steve James, executive director of the California Milk Processor Board, told ABC7 News. “We can’t pick and choose who we send our cease-and-desist orders to. They complied quickly. It is a well designed project and well thought out and we wish them luck.”
After being told of the letter by their parents, the boys debated whether they should proceed. It was a tough decision between that and going out for ice cream.
“For the first time in memory, ice cream did not win out,” said their father.
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