Trademark law is a nuanced discipline. Word choice matters greatly. The use of a particular word, a certain combination of words, the exact construction of a phrase, and/or the precise arrangement of particular terms – each of these can affect the validity and enforceability of a trademark. It is important.
Last week, I was in the middle of a trademark infringement trial in federal court. Opposing counsel colloquially referred to official certificates of registration as “trademarks” and the underlying applications as “trademark applications.” Each time I had to stand up and object. For one simple, yet legally necessary reason:
There is no such thing as a “trademark application.”
Last night, the Philadelphia Eagles defeated the New England Patriots to win Super Bowl LII®. By this point, the Super Bowl is more than just a football game. It is a literal spectacle, above and beyond the athletic competition itself. Not only do viewers get exposed to the glitz and glamour of the biggest game of the season, but there is also an extra-long halftime special. Not to mention the heavily-discussed commercials. Often, marketing firms will hire celebrities to appear in these commercials to add a little extra pizzazz. Of course, these celebrities usually agree to appear in these advertisements beforehand, with full knowledge that their likeness is being used for commercial gain. This year’s Super Bowl went a step further.
Prince, Martin Luther King, Jr., and Kurt Cobain are some of the most iconic individuals in American history and pop culture. They were also fiercely protective of how their names and images were used when they were alive. Today, their respective estates or other third-parties control how their “publicity rights” and how their likenesses are marketed. Yet somehow each of these three were all featured in different ways during the Super Bowl telecast, often in direct contrast to how they would have presented themselves during their lifetimes. How is this legal? I will try to address this interesting cross-section of trademark, copyright, and publicity right issues here.
On May 25, 1977, George Lucas unleashed Star Wars: A New Hope into the cinematic consciousness. A movie that cost $11 million to make generated nearly $800 million in worldwide box office receipts. Even at the time, it would have been hard to predict the scope of Star Wars in popular culture forty years later. In October 2012, Disney bought Lucasfilm – and the rights to all things Star Wars – for $4 billion.
Not even Peter Minuit got as good of a deal for his 60 guilders when he acquired Manhattan.
It may not be an understatement to claim that the Star Wars property is collectively the most valuable intellectual property asset in modern history. I am not the first to assert this. Consider the ever-expanding scope of characters, stories, movies, books, toys, multimedia, and all the related technology that can be associated with Star Wars. With Star Wars Episode VIII: The Last Jedi opening on December 15, 2017, a deeper dive into the scope of Star Wars and its intellectual property universe seems timely and appropriate.
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.