As a practicing attorney, with a specialization in intellectual property law, I am often asked to assist clients and potential clients with their various trademark needs. Among the more common questions or requests that are posed to me are the following:
“I need to trademark XYZ!”
“My competition is using ABC, but they did not trademark it, so can I use it?”
(and more recently)
“I hear the Supreme Court says you can now trademark offensive terms, is that true?”
While well-intentioned, each of these questions is either grammatically or factually incorrect. Why? Because, quite simply, “trademark” is not a verb and should never be used as a verb in a legal context. “Trademark” is a noun that identifies a word, phrase, symbol, and/or design that identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods of one party from those of others. It is not a process or an action or a series of steps to be accomplished. The word is not a verb. Unfortunately, modern colloquial uses of the term have seeped into the common dialogue. This causes mistakes, unnecessary confusion, and potentially drastic mis-applications of the law by those who are otherwise acting in good faith.
Here’s how and why.
April 20, 2017
In a world of fake news, clickbait, and alternative facts, there is a bit of comfort in knowing at least one undeniable fact. Donald J. Trump is enthusiastic about stamping the TRUMP name on most any goods or services and reaping the benefits of the ancillary trademark rights. He first sought trademark registration for a Trump-branded product in 1985 and has since sought to register in excess of 300 other trademarks with the United States Patent and Trademark Office, including the now ubiquitous MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN® mark, which was registered on August 16, 2016. While he often files applications through his various corporate entities, the fact remains: Donald Trump loves him some trademark rights.
This may elicit a few questions though. First, can a sitting POTUS own trademark rights? Also, what about other intellectual property rights: patents, copyrights, trade secrets? Can a U.S. President acquire, assert, enforce, or use with impunity certain types of intellectual property?
I shall do my best to answer these, though I will try to avoid addressing in detail the emoluments clause elephant in the room. For now.
Trademarks and trademark law are a tricky legal property. For one, trademarks are technically “owned” by the individual or entity that uses the mark in association with goods or services in commerce. Yet the underlying purpose of trademarks is to protect the relevant consumer. Trademarks are only valuable (and protectable) to the extent the consumer associates that mark with the source of particular goods and services.
How do you get a trademark? It is not difficult. The exact moment you select a word, logo, slogan, phrase, or design – and “use” it in association with particular goods and services in the stream of commerce, it becomes a legal trademark. While the definition of “use” can be nebulous and imprecise, essentially any sales or marketing efforts that target consumers or customers across interstate lines can be proper trademark “use” that breathes life into a mark. This provides what is known as “common law” trademark rights. These rights are enforceable in a court of law.
The obvious follow-up question then is: if getting a trademark is so easy, why should I bother going through the process of applying for a state or federal trademark registration? What do I get for my money? We have now stumbled across the purpose of this article.
Can musicians and artists legally demand that politicians not use their works?
Recently, the Rolling Stones sent a notice to Donald Trump demanding that he cease using their songs at his campaign events across the country. This is not the first time an artist has objected to a politician using certain songs or related works in conjunction with a political campaign. It is practically a rite of passage for a high-profile politician to anger a musician with a particular choice of campaign theme song. This is an American trend that dates back at least to the early 1980s, when Bruce Springsteen upbraided President Ronald Reagan for using “Born in the U.S.A.” as part of his re-election efforts.
Of course, the Rolling Stones are not an American band. Plus, by now we all know that Donald Trump is not exactly the type of person to back down to what may be a toothless demand. Trump might all too willing to cite 250 years of American history by telling the Rolling Stones to take their demand and shove it. He thrives on this type of attention after all. But that is not the question. The real question is this:
Can Donald Trump (or most any politician) use any song they want for a campaign without obtaining the musician’s permission?
Generic trademarks are no joke. Earlier this week, the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board ruled that the trademark BOOKING.COM was generic for travel agency and hotel reservation services. Legally speaking, if a mark is generic, it no longer serves the purpose of a trademark and cannot be protected or enforced against third party uses. According to the TTAB’s ruling, booking.com operates to essentially identify the product itself and does not operate as a source-identifier to customers. Therefore no one is entitled to exclusive use of this term in commerce.
This news triggered a few things in my mind. Recently, a friend of mine and I had lunch at a nice restaurant in the Houston area. This restaurant offered a particular dessert offering – a dressed-up, fancy Oreo cookie. Now, being a trademark nerd, I noticed the lack of any trademark designation on the menu listing. No ™. No ®. And no disclaimer in the fine print suggesting that “Oreo” is a trademark owned by someone else and licensed to this restaurant. Nothing of the sort. My friend and I joked about this for a while until it occurred to me that I may have stumbled upon something interesting:
Has OREO become a generic term that no longer functions as a trademark?
Did you know that The Coca-Cola Company applied to register a federal trademark for the term “COCA-COLA ZERO”? It is true. Coca-Cola filed the application with the USPTO on March 4, 2005. The application was published for opposition on April 17, 2007. Not surprisingly, the companies that own Dr. Pepper and 7-Up immediately opposed this registration. The battle has been ongoing for over eight years now.
Without going into too much detail, an executive for Coca-Cola testified recently that there are twelve Coke products that use the term ZERO in the product name. This includes Coke Zero, Cherry Coke Zero, Vanilla Coke Zero and others. This is consistent with Coca-Cola’s trademark application, which identified the relevant goods and services as “Beverages, namely soft drinks; syrups and concentrates for the making of the same.” Nevertheless, the “ZERO” part of the mark almost certainly refers to the marketing of these specific products as having “zero calories” per serving size (i.e., one can or bottle). This presents a series of interesting trademark concepts.
Star Wars: The Force Awakens opens on December 18, 2015. It will be the biggest movie of the year. It will also likely be the most infringed copyrighted work of the year (and 2016, too). It will be the seventh official full-length Star Wars movie to be released in theaters since 1977. Though I recently re-watched the prequels and I would prefer to act as if they did not exist. No matter what revisionist history might try to argue.
Since the original movie, Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope, George Lucas has not been shy about protecting his intellectual property rights. It is practically a running joke that any reference to Star Wars will expose you to a lawsuit from Lucasfilm or Disney. (The Walt Disney Company bought Lucasfilm for $4,000,000,000 in October 2012 and immediately announced plans for a new set of Star Wars movies using the same characters and settings.)
To demonstrate just how sincere the creator of the Star Wars universe is about protecting his creation, his characters, the movies, the settings, the concepts and the ancillary names, brands and logos – the following is a summary of the notable issues relating to Star Wars intellectual property.
Last weekend, The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Part 2 made over $100 million at the box office. The movie’s success is largely due to the strength of Jennifer Lawrence and the popularity of the books. Enough digital ink has been spilled discussing the movie as a dystopian political outlook for young adult audiences. Instead, here we repurpose the world of Panem as if it adopted the intellectual property laws currently in the United States.
Accordingly, under that hypothetical, what trademark and publicity rights does Katniss Everdeen have? Did the rebels and/or the nation-state of Panem violate or infringe any of these rights by exploiting her image as the “Mockingjay”?
[mild spoilers ahead, proceed with caution if you have not seen the movie]
Last week, counsel for the Washington Redskins submitted a lengthy brief to the Fourth Circuit that, in part, provided a laundry list of other trademarks that have been registered by the USPTO and were implicitly deemed not to be immoral, scandalous, disparaging or otherwise offensive. In a parallel but unrelated matter, the owners of the trademark for NUT SACK DOUBLE BROWN ALE – for a beer flavor, naturally – overcame a challenge to their mark and were granted a federal trademark registration.
These two decisions seem incongruous, but are they really? At the very least, I hope to see an episode of South Park where Cartman wears a Washington Redskins™ jersey while drinking a Nut Sack®-flavored drink.