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The MoMaCha storefront at 314 Bowery (photo by the author for Hyperallergic)

The Museum of Modern Art wants no more of MoMaCha, a new café and gallery on the Lower East Side that the museum is suing for trademark violation. In its complaint, filed on Tuesday, the museum claims it sent MoMaCha a cease-and-desist letter in late March, before the café had opened to the public.

“[MoMaCha’s] willful intent here is clear as there is no possibility that they were not aware of MoMA or its famous MOMA mark prior to starting their business earlier this month,” the lawsuit, first reported by Reuters, states. “They are blatantly attempting to take advantage of the MOMA Marks, which are unquestionably famous within the modern and contemporary art space, to promote their newly launched art gallery and café business — perhaps even hoping for some free publicity when MoMA inevitably takes additional steps to stop this blatant infringement of its MOMA Marks, something that MoMA has not been required to do in the past.”

MoMaCha, meanwhile, says it has no illusions of being confused for MoMA and plans to change its logo design on a regular basis. The café and gallery opened in a small storefront space at 314 Bowery (directly next-door to popular gallery The Hole) earlier this month, and has plans for three additional locations in the coming months. Its inaugural exhibition features touchable and edible art by Dan Lam.

“I don’t understand what MoMA wants from us,” the café’s co-owner, artist Eric Cahan, told Hyperallergic.” Do they want us not to exist? They don’t own the word ‘cha,’ it means tea; they don’t own the word ‘more.’ To me it’s a little confusing. They can have Richard Prince in their collection, but I can’t use Helvetica? It doesn’t make any sense.”

The Museum of Modern Art’s logo on a banner along West 53rd Street (left, photo by Casper Moller/Wikimedia Commons) and MoMaCha’s logo on its storefront (right, photo by Benjamin Sutton/Hyperallergic)

Large corporations are often moved to threaten or pursue legal action when their trademarked names, logos, and other design elements are infringed upon by other businesses (see: Trader Joe’s v Pirate Joe’s). MoMA’s complaint offers an extensive primer on its visual identity, branding, and trademark holdings, noting that MoMaCha filed trademark applications for “MOMA” and “MOMACHA” on January 18, 2018 and November 17, 2017, respectively.

“There is no question that Defendants are targeting the very visitors that frequent MoMA’s museum, stores, and restaurants,” the lawsuit claims, “and hoping to confuse them into believing that Defendants’ MoMaCha art gallery and café has some connection to MoMA, when there is none.”

For its part, MoMaCha says it has no interest in competing with MoMA, or profiting from any similarity between its simple Helvetica logo and the museum’s famous visual identity.

“MoMaCha is not here to compete with the Museum of Modern Art on any level,” reads a statement sent to Hyperallergic by MoMaCha. “We’re a matcha cafe with a creative side, just like many coffee shops. In short, we aren’t a museum. We’re a group of good listeners who love making people feel happy through matcha and shared experiences.”

The tenor of MoMA’s lawsuit is more severe. It accuses MoMaCha of acting “with full knowledge of and intent to cause harm to MoMA,” and claiming that because of the café, MoMA will suffer “harm to its name, reputation, and goodwill.” The lawsuit calls on the café to cease using the name “MoMaCha.”

Cahan said he has no intention of changing the name, but added that it had always been MoMaCha’s intention to change its logo on a seasonal basis, in response to its exhibition programs, and with respect to the specific neighborhoods of its given locations.

“All that they can make me do is change our logo. Cool, I’ll do that on my own, no problem,” he added. “I’m not going to stop everything I’m doing because MoMA doesn’t like my use of Helvetica.”

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Benjamin Sutton

Benjamin Sutton is an art critic, journalist, and curator who lives in Park Slope, Brooklyn. His articles on public art, artist documentaries, the tedium of art fairs, James Franco's obsession with Cindy...

7 replies on “MoMA Sues New Café and Gallery “MoMaCha” for Trademark Violation”

  1. It’s a terrible name – so maybe bullying by a behemoth is a good thing in this case 😉
    Spend some more time, asks fr help – come up with a better option.

  2. Not all designers know about branding, trademarks, or any aspects related to owning. Brand owners are sensitive to anything that are sounds like or visually similar to what they own.

  3. When you walk into MoMaCha they say:

    “Welcome to MoMaCha, we’re a joint venture between the Hole gallery and MoMA”

    1. You’re 100% right. It’s a heavy version of Franklin Gothic. What? Heavens to Betsy – that’s the same typeface MoMA uses. How could that ever have happened? Cahan sounds like a completely disingenuous tool on all counts.

  4. I don’t even know what’s worse, the name MoMaCha or the ignorant comments by the cafe’s owner. To reduce the issue to the use of the Helvetica font in the logo is simply ridiculous. But most importantly, ineffective. The more you downplay the strength of the plaintiff’s case, the more viscous the plaintiff’s attacks will be. Why would you attract the wrath of a company with a huge litigation budget is beyond me.

    Andrei Mincov

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  5. When I first heard about the dispute I doubted that MoMa had a case, but seeing the graphics and the store pictures, it’s pretty clear this place is trying to be clever by trading of the museums name and general look and feel (trade dress), and they will lose. Seeing as how they’ve gotten the publicity they seem to be looking for, look for them to make a change before they get trashed in court.

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