A federal jury trial is underway to determine whether U-Haul violated trademark law in using the word “pods” to market its portable U-Box moving product.

PODS Enterprises, a Clearwater, FL-based provider of portable metal moving containers, sued U-Haul in July 2012. PODS is an acronym for “portable on demand storage.” Both sides delivered opening statements Sept. 8 in U.S. District Court in Tampa, FL. PODS is seeking $170 million in damages.

In its suit, PODS alleges U-Haul “improperly and unlawfully” used the trademarked word “pods” to market its own portable moving offering with the intention of confusing customers and grabbing sales from PODS. According to the suit, U-Haul used the generic term “pods” on more than 96,000 web pages.

As a result, Google searches for “pods” or “moving pods” frequently give U-Haul prominent placement in search results, to the detriment of PODS, the suit claims.

In court documents, U-Haul lawyers argued that PODS shouldn’t be able to trademark such a generic term. As evidence for its common usage, lawyers cited the Oxford Dictionary, which in one instance defines the word as a “detachable or self-contained compartment on an aircraft or other vehicle or vessel.”

PODS containers are similar to metal shipping containers, while U-Haul offers smaller containers made of wood.

War of words

The suit alleges U-Haul began misusing the term “pods” soon after backing out of a 2007 deal to buy PODS, which was founded in 1998. After gaining access to confidential information about the company, U-Haul changed its mind about buying PODS. U-Haul said in court documents that it decided not to buy the company because it was performing poorly.

U-Haul launched its U-Box moving and storage product in May 2008. The suit states that in 2009, U-Haul began using “pod” and “pods” in its advertising. The suit describes the move as a “plan to capitalize on the enormous goodwill of the PODS brand by misusing and publishing the PODS mark and variations of the mark throughout advertising and marketing materials in order to unlawfully attract business and sales to U-Haul.”

This isn’t the first time PODS has gone after competitors for using the term. It’s taken legal action to stop more than 200 companies from using it, according to the suit.

Executives from AMERCO, the parent of company of U-Haul, discussed the U-Box program during a recent conference call with Wall Street analysts. Jason Berg, AMERCO’s chief accounting officer, said his company dedicated more to improving the U-Box program. The company sees portable storage as a huge growth opportunity.

“I would say that there is probably more of an opportunity in this business — at least that’s my opinion — than in the truck and trailer business, as far as getting to places where the competition isn’t right now,” Berg said.

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Alexander Harris