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Lockheed challenges use of ‘Skunkworks’ name by gun maker

Defense contractor Lockheed Martin Corp. smelled something rotten when a Montana gun maker filed an application to trademark its name, Underground Skunkworks.

One of Bethesda-based Lockheed’s most storied divisions is its Advanced Development Programs, more popularly known by its trademarked name — the Skunk Works.

The secretive World War II-era airplane design facility has spawned fighter planes from the F-104 Starfighter to the F-117 “Nighthawk” stealth bomber.

Columbia Falls-based Underground Skunkworks designs and sells high-end, custom-made assault rifles, sniper rifles and shotguns.

Lockheed, which had $45.8 billion in net sales in 2010, claims in a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the District of Maryland in Greenbelt on Tuesday that the other company is infringing on its trademark.

Lockheed is seeking a permanent injunction against Underground Skunkworks, along with treble damages and the destruction of literature and goods with the Montana company’s name on it.

Calls to Lockheed Martin’s attorney and Underground Skunkworks owner Michael Bush were not returned.

Ned T. Himmelrich, an intellectual property attorney with Gordon,Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger & Hollander LLC, said Lockheed might have an edge in the lawsuit, given how long the company has been using the Skunk Works name and the fact that the companies deal with military products.

“The test is confusion — will people buy the Underground Skunkworks gun and think that, in some way, Lockheed stands behind it?” Himmelrich said. “That’s the real test — is confusion going to be likely?

“And, Skunk Works is a strong mark that Lockheed Martin seems to have been using a long time, especially in the artillery and weapons area.”

Lockheed’s Skunk Works is the better-known name of its Advanced Development Programs division in Palmdale, Calif. That part of the giant defense contractor dates to 1943 when an engineer at the company worked on what would be the first jet fighter in the United States, the XP-80 Shooting Star.

The engineering team had a short timetable to design and produce the aircraft after military intelligence learned of the existence of the German Messerschmitt Me 262 jet fighter.

According to company history, the team working on the Shooting Star could not find room inside Lockheed’s existing buildings and worked instead in a rented circus tent. The tent was next to a manufacturing plant which emitted a strong odor that carried into the team’s work area and contributed to the engineers referring to it as the Skunk Works.

Underground Skunkworks makes custom bolt-action rifles, shotguns and versions of the M4 rifle. The company’s line of rifles includes the “Jaeger” and “Perseus” models as well as a “Model 911” series.

It also makes the “Infidel,” a roughly $3,000 bolt-action rifle, which the company’s sales literature says is named for: “Any well trained, patriotic and contributory American Citizen that says little and stands hard against those that target the United States. An Infidel will also not hesitate to protect the sheepish, complacent population of the United States that chooses to believe that a well-armed society is unnecessary.”

Underground Skunkworks’ website carries a disclaimer that it, “is not, in any way, affiliated with Lockheed Martin Corporation nor do we represent any products or services associated with Lockheed Martin Corporation.”

“A disclaimer on the website doesn’t avoid liability — if there is liability,” Himmelrich said.

The lawsuit follows an attempt by Underground Skunkworks to trademark its name.

An application filed with the U.S. Trademark Office six weeks ago said the company has been using the Underground Skunkworks name since 2005. Himmelrich said that length of time could prove to be Underground Skunkworks’ defense in the case.

“If they have any argument it’s that they’ve been using the name for six years and Lockheed Martin hasn’t done anything,” Himmelrich said. “On its face, they could say we’ve used it and you sat on your hands. But five or six years often isn’t a long enough time to create that defense.”

“I would bet on Lockheed Martin on this one, I’d have to say,” he added.