In July 2022, Elizabeth, a Catholic creator in the Midwest, noticed something that struck her as odd: The Little Catholic, a larger Catholic business specializing in selling jewelry and accessories, began to post a trademark symbol next to jewelry items depicting the “Holy Family Hearts”—namely, the combined images of the Sacred Heart, Immaculate Heart, and Most Chaste Heart of St. Joseph. The phrase itself had a trademark symbol, something that Elizabeth found unusual in the Catholic creators’ community.
Elizabeth originally noticed the symbol in an Instagram post from the business advertising a “Holy Family Hearts” necklace. She and other Catholic creators began to comment on the public post with questions about the trademark and what it meant.
Word spread further in Zelie & Co, a private Facebook group of nearly 900 Catholic creators who use the page to share their work and collaborate.
The Little Catholic was founded by Priscilla Huerta out of California in 2018. The business specializes in selling hand-crafted jewelry, home decor, clothing, stickers, magnets, and accessories and donates a percentage of its profits to charities such as the Sisters of Life and crisis pregnancy centers. She had filed multiple trademark applications, including for “Holy Family Hearts.”
At the time of Elizabeth’s discovery, Huerta was a member of Zelie & Co., and when a group post was made about the trademarks, Huerta responded to some of the comments, advising the concerned creators to consult a trademark attorney.
The creators, who commented on the Instagram post where they first noticed the use of the trademark symbol, were then sent cease and desist letters by Huerta’s lawyer, claiming defamation.
In the following months, members of Zelie & Co. discovered that Huerta had filed trademark applications for several additional Catholic phrases as well.
Per a United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) trademark search, Huerta had filed for trademark registrations of “Holy Family Hearts” in separate classes for jewelry, T-shirts, and stickers; “Sacred Heart,” “Immaculate Heart,” and “Holy Heart” for jewelry; and “Mary’s Garden” for headbands, hair bands, and jewelry. Huerta has not responded to several inquiries for comment on this story.
Of these, only “Holy Family Hearts” and “Holy Heart” have been registered, both for jewelry. “Holy Family Hearts” has been published for opposition—a period of time before the trademark is officially registered during which the public has an opportunity to oppose the trademark’s registration—with respect to T-shirts. The remainder of the applications have received “nonfinal office actions, requiring additional information”—meaning, the examiner reviewing the application found an issue that needs to be addressed before they can register the trademark.
As of 2023, a simple search on Etsy alone will show that the Catholic creators’ community is extensive. However, in this little corner of Zelie & Co., the sellers are mostly women, many of whom are wives and mothers. They sell similar products: Catholic-themed stickers, T-shirts, jewelry, rosaries, and home decor, to name a few. However, each creator has their own unique style and artistic flair.
“It is community over competition. I have good relationships with a lot of these women,” says Katerina Deem, a Catholic graphic designer and owner of Little Way Design Co.
Many of those who have been a part of this space for a long time believe that the trademarking of Catholic phrases beyond a brand name is “unprecedented,” especially in a community that has been viewed as mostly collaborative.
Creators now find themselves concerned over the legal consequences of continuing to use these phrases to market and sell their wares in the classes in which Huerta is attempting to register trademarks.
“People backed off after the letters about defamation,” says Elizabeth. (She requested that she not be identified by her real name nor that her business be named.) “This will create fear among business owners about doing things incorrectly—is this going to start a slippery slope of other sacred terms being trademarked?”
Elizabeth says that she and others began to question whether any one person should possess the exclusive rights to use these sacred terms, even in a specific context. Beyond the legality, Elizabeth and other creators are concerned about the exclusionary use of phrases that are considered deeply Catholic—a word itself that means universal.
“As Catholics, we have a sense of collaboration; we are a church, and we are one body of Christ. The things that belong to the universal church, none of us should be able to claim any kind of exclusive right over that,” says Shannon Wendt, founder and owner of Chews Life and one of the cofounders of Zelie & Co. “In order to spread our faith and grow our faith, we should have the freedom to be able to do so. Many Catholic creators use our products as a means to evangelize the world, and by trademarking some of these very universal, ancient Catholic phrases, you are cutting off the ability to evangelize in a lot of ways.”
While any individual is legally within their rights to file for trademark registration, whether it is granted or not, the legality of it is not what concerns the Catholic creators’ community the most. Rather, it is whether there should be limits or even a sense of ownership over any Catholic devotion or phrase.
A collaborative community
When she launched her business, Wendt says that the Catholic creators’ community was not what it is today. Wendt started her business, Chews Life, in 2016. Soon after, she helped found Zelie & Co.
“In the very beginning, (the creative sellers’ community) was nonexistent,” says Wendt. “There were a few people on Facebook or Instagram whom I could kind of pick out as other Catholic shops and as doing something consistently. Then, pretty quickly over the last couple of years, a lot of people jumped into the game, and we formed a community of Catholics.”
Wendt describes these fellow Catholic women creatives as “like-minded” and as simply wanting to share their product, craft, or art.
“They realized they could do this for other people and start to make a little bit of income for their family, which would contribute in some kind of meaningful way,” she says.
Forming a business comes with “forks in the road and hiccups,” Wendt says. However, she says that many of the businesses, including her own, have taken off and begun to bring in six to seven figures a year.
Even so, small business ownership and entrepreneurship can be a lonely road, Wendt says, and the Zelie & Co. community allows the women to be a part of something bigger. “[We] kind of just formed this community as a way to support each other and to share ideas and grow together,” she says.
Wendt feels she has a good pulse on the happenings in the Catholic creators’ space—this is the first time she has heard of anyone attempting to trademark a Catholic phrase beyond their brand name.
Wendt herself is no stranger to fighting for her intellectual property: She says she has spent thousands fighting one legal battle. However, if she notices a creator using her trademarked company name for their own products, she always reaches out to them personally before involving a lawyer.
“I have reached out, small business to small business, and been like, ‘Hey, maybe you didn’t know, but this is my brand name. This is protected, and you are not able to use this in your listing,’ and they’ve taken it down,” says Wendt. “It’s just a smart business move: Before I pay my lawyers to send them a letter, I reach out to them personally. I have found that when people have those kinds of misunderstandings, they are usually able to talk person to person, Catholic woman to Catholic woman, small business to small business, and come to some kind of agreement. I have never seen lawyers getting involved between Catholic small businesses before.”
Registering a trademark
Even as Catholic creators question the ethics of trademarking Catholic phrases, legally, anyone can attempt to register a trademark.
“The purpose of a trademark is to indicate the source or the origin of a product,” says John Carlson, an intellectual property lawyer based in Michigan. “A trademark is an indicator of who created that product and who is responsible for that product so that consumers are not confused when they buy a product and they know what to expect in terms of the quality.” Ultimately, trademarks are meant to protect consumers, he says.
In order to obtain a trademark, you begin by building up your rights by using the mark, Carlson says. Additionally, while registration is not required, there are benefits to doing so through the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).
The rejection of a trademark application is typically a normal part of the process, Carlson says. In the case of Huerta’s marks, only two have been officially registered, while the majority have been turned down with nonfinal actions—meaning the office requires more information, but there is still time to respond.
“You respond and fix whatever it is that they don’t like,” says Carlson of a nonfinal action. “You argue and try to convince them that they’re wrong. There is a back and forth, typically.”
Once a mark is registered, it is the obligation of the mark owner to “police” the mark so as not to lose the association between the mark and the product.
In this particular instance, Huerta can only police for the classes she has filed for: jewelry, T-shirts, stickers, magnets, and headbands. Other uses of the mark are outside of her scope.
Carlson, a practicing Catholic, said he has “faith in the law” and believes the remaining marks that haven’t been approved will be rejected, as they are “descriptive” rather than “source identifiers.”
“You have to submit an example of how you are going to use the mark, and she submitted a photograph of the Sacred Heart medal. So the examiner caught it,” he says.
In the nonfinal action, the examining attorney wrote:
“The specimen provided by applicant is for a sacred heart medal . . . The Sacred Heart or Sacred Heart of Jesus ‘is one of the most widely practiced and well-known Catholic devotions, wherein the heart of Jesus is viewed as a symbol of God’s boundless and passionate love for mankind.’ . . . . Although applicant has applied for a broad ID, that is, jewelry. The specimen is very specific and is the medal form of the mark that applicant has applied for, that is, a sacred heart medal.”
A consumer would not view “Sacred Heart” as a source identifier specific to The Little Catholic, Carlson says. Rather, they would view it as a description of the product. “In the end, this kind of works itself out. This is a Sacred Heart medal. You can’t trademark what it is—you can’t prevent people from calling Sacred Heart medals Sacred Heart medals,” he says.
A Catholic worldview
For Elizabeth, reducing these phrases to classes, specifically to “jewelry,” makes no sense in a Catholic context.
“Catholics see ‘jewelry’ very differently; we don’t see a crucifix as decorative or costume jewelry,” she says. “It is a symbol of our faith, and it is sacramental. When we are talking about Catholic medals, I would put ‘medal’ in a very different set-aside category where it is an expression of faith and an outward sign of our faith.”
For Catholic trademark attorney Chris Falkowski, the phrases Huerta is trying to register are more “suggestive of a message rather than a source identifier.” However, if the person registering a mark is aggressive in policing it, and individuals respond by ceasing to use the mark rather than asserting their rights, then the person registering the trademark establishes strong trademark rights.
“There is nothing illegal about [this], but people in a position to say something about it should probably speak up,” Falkowski says.
Even so, the process for appealing trademark rejections or for challenging trademark applications or registrations can come at a great financial cost.
“I think the concern in [Zelie & Co.] is that these are small businesses. These women have created very cool products, and they want to be able to sell the products that they’ve made without fear of receiving legal letters,” says Wendt.
What is considered “sacred”?
Elizabeth is the owner of one of the businesses that believe they can claim “first use” of “Holy Family Hearts,” something that needs to be established when filing for a trademark. She plans to fight and is slowly building her case but has no desire to register a trademark for the phrase herself.
In addition to the legal concerns, Elizabeth wonders about the ethics of the choice in the context of a Catholic business community.
A letter sent by Huerta’s lawyer to Elizabeth reads, “These terms are not sacred terms.”
But according to Edward Peters, a canon lawyer and professor at Sacred Heart Major Seminary in Detroit, phrases such as “Sacred Heart” and “Immaculate Heart” are “traditional designations for, or the actual titles of, cherished devotions that we Catholics have long regarded as the common heritage of our faith.”
“The very idea that someone might try, using civil law, to claim ownership of or control over such revered phrases and then grant or withhold permission to use these esteemed expressions in accord with terms to be set out by such persons strikes me as ridiculous, of course,” says Peters.
Furthermore, creators argue that Huerta is not the original source of these devotions or images.
Deem, the owner of Little Way Design Co., has run an exclusively Catholic business for five and a half years. She is a self-taught graphic designer who began 11 years ago but who pivoted to selling Catholic items, mainly T-shirts as well as greeting cards, stickers, and Bible tabs—in her words, “anything that could make a good Catholic gift.” Additionally, Deem has a master’s degree in pastoral studies.
Deem says that she expects her business to be impacted by the trademarks for “Holy Family Hearts” T-shirt and stickers, if approved. Additionally, Deem has products using the mark “Mary’s Garden,” but not in the classes in which Huerta is trying to register a trademark.
Deem considered filing a letter of opposition; however, her family doesn’t rely on her business as their sole income, and she believes doing so is more trouble than it is worth. Even so, she does find the trademarks “problematic” but says she gives Huerta “the benefit of the doubt.”
Deem supports and understands Huerta’s right to copyright any of her original artwork and the name of her shop but that trying to trademark the words of “devotions and divine revelation” doesn’t make sense to her.
“Divine revelation is the source of inspiration for Catholic artists,” says Deem. “Theologically, it is incoherent to me, because divine revelation, which in this case was given to St. Margaret Mary for the Sacred Heart in the late 1600s, was freely given to her. The Lord told her to spread this devotion, and then she gave it to us. Four hundred to 500 years later, we are still talking about this. We know what the Sacred Heart looks like because of her, because she gave it to us.”
Deem worries about how the registration of these marks will impact artists, both in the community and those who are interested in entering.
“Considering the body of Christ and how we all have different gifts, I just don’t think that we should prevent one another as artists from creating what we feel called to create,” she says.
Image: Unsplash/Maegan Martin