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The Tea Party's Strange New War

You might think nobody had a patent on the historic Tea Party name. Think again. Zachary Roth on the Tea Party Patriots' legal saber-rattling—the grassroots movement’s latest growing pain.

10.01.10 7:08 PM ET

The name “Tea Party” is among the most venerable in U.S. political history—dating back to the legendary Boston event in 1773, when American colonists dumped tea bags into the Boston Harbor to protest the long arm of the British monarchy. So it’s more than a little ironic that the Tea Party’s latter-day descendants, the Tea Party Patriots born in 2009, would turn to an intellectual property lawyer in a zealous bid to defend the rights to their name.

In May, a Tea Party group in Georgia's Golden Isles region received an email from the website Zazzle.com, informing the group that bumper stickers it had been selling on the site had been removed, thanks to a trademark infringement claim made on behalf of Tea Party Patriots Inc. by Kevin Grierson, a lawyer with FSB FisherBroyles. No anti-establishment rabble this: FSB's clients include American Express, Morgan Stanley, Porsche, and Toll Brothers, the home-building behemoth.

Grierson, who's based in Virginia, is an experienced intellectual property specialist and sits on the board of the National Association of Patent Practitioners, a patent-law trade group. "I can't comment on any of my clients' activities," he told The Daily Beast.

The Golden Isles group was taken aback. "They made a big stink," William Temple, an activist with the group, told The Daily Beast, referring to Tea Party Patriots. "We all thought it was silly, ridiculous." Temple added that the episode had made his group less willing to work with the Tea Party Patriots, a national umbrella organization for Tea Party groups. "A lot of us now are just going around them, and somewhat fed up with them."

Umbrella groups like Tea Party Patriots, said Temple, "have become jealous and protective of what they think is theirs." He added: "It's all about maintaining control.” It’s also one more growing pain for a grass-roots movement that is expanding in influence—and undergoing the inevitable factionalism and fights over authenticity that go along with its maturation.

Neither Mark Meckler nor Jenny Beth Martin, the Patriots' national coordinators, responded to a request for comment from The Daily Beast.

Since the Tea Party movement began in early 2009, numerous local groups have used the terms "Patriot" and "Patriots" to describe themselves—seemingly referencing the "patriots" of the original Boston Tea Party, the movement's historical lodestar. But online records examined by The Daily Beast show that in July 2009, Grierson filed a federal trademark registration on behalf of the Tea Party Patriots. The registration is currently being challenged by Amy Kremer, who was forced out of Tea Party Patriots last year amid a struggle for control. Kremer, who now chairs a rival group, Tea Party Express, claims prior use of the Tea Party Patriots name.

"They made a big stink," William Temple said, referring to Tea Party Patriots. "We all thought it was silly, ridiculous."

Reihan Salam: The GOP’s Secret WeaponThe lengthy "Terms and Conditions" page of Tea Party Patriots' website informs readers: "TPP aggressively enforces its intellectual property rights to the fullest extent of the law. The name Tea Party Patriots or any other Trademarks may not be used in any way, including in advertising or publicity pertaining to distribution of materials on this Site, without prior written permission from TPP."

But the trademark spat is just the latest in a series of developments that has some Tea Party activists questioning whether Tea Party Patriots leaders like Martin and Meckler have strayed too far from the movement's grassroots ethos. The Daily Beast reported earlier this week that the group has turned to a heavy-hitting corporate PR pro to help shape its message, and last week it announced it had received a $1 million donation to be dispersed to local groups via grants—but wouldn't reveal where the money came from.

That's causing deep skepticism in some quarters of the movement. "This $1 million stinks to me," said Temple, whose penchant for dressing in Revolutionary Era garb at Tea Party events had previously helped make him a telegenic face of the movement. "If it's from the Republican Party, what do they want?"

Sounding a theme that's become increasingly common lately among some Tea Party activists, Temple called for greater disclosure from Patriots' leaders, asking, "If you're talking to the government about transparency, why aren't you being transparent with the money you got?"

Dawn Forbes, another Golden Isles Tea Party activist, agrees, and sees the offer of grants as another way to exert to control. "It feels like, you need to come for us for money," she said. "And we don't play that game."

Sounding a similar note, one California Tea Party organizer, in an impassioned blog post that appeared yesterday, lambasted the Patriots' efforts to prevent local activists from using the group's email list. "Where they claim to be 'leaderless,' 'grassroots,' 'bottom-up, rather than top-down' ... that's all a RUSE," wrote Laura Boatright, calling the Tea Party Patriots "the 800 pound THUG GORILLA in the room."

Forbes fears the Tea Party is turning into everything it once opposed. "At the point where you start trying to consolidate power, at that point you're getting into issues that politicians and parties have been getting into," she said. "And that's not what the Tea Party movement is about."

Zachary Roth was until May a reporter for Talking Points Memo, and is a contributing editor to The Washington Monthly. He also has written for The Los Angeles Times, The New Republic, Slate, and Salon, among other outlets.