An obscure group, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, voted in early July to rescind Washington Redskins trademark registrations on the grounds that the name “may disparage” Native Americans. Cancellation of this federal trademark is not automatic, as the franchise is appealing the decision. But the fact the board acted on such a politically charged issue raised questions about many other trademarks that enjoy federal protection; many people would find some of these trademarks extremely offensive (see “Uppity Negro, No. 4 below). But it also brought to light the entire trademark process. The USPTO usually gets more than 250,000 trademark applications each year. Here are 10 of the stranger U.S. trademark filings in recent years.
10. Katy Perry Bids to Trademark Left Shark, Right Shark, Etc.
After Katy Perry’s comically awkward “left shark” unintentionally stole the show during her halftime performance at the Super Bowl earlier this year, sculptor Fernando Sosa created and sold a 3-D rendering of the shark. Perry’s camp immediately responded by sending the artist a cease-and-desist letter. Sosa countered with legal action, as his attorney pointed out that costumes (the dancer is known as “Left Shark” for a reason!) can’t be copyrighted. Plus, it was pointed out to Perry’s attorneys that the celeb didn’t make the meme; the Internet did. The back-and-forth continued with Perry’s lawyers filing claims for terms ranging from “Drunk Shark” to “Right Shark.” This has led some to question the rising incidence of famous people pursuing broad trademark claims.
If there is one theme that binds this case and many others on this list, perhaps it is that trademark law isn’t designed to protect a creator from lost profits. The purpose is to protect consumers from confusion or fraud. After all, when your eye sees the iconic “Swoosh” symbol, you expect you are getting a genuine Nike product. Same goes for the green mermaid and Starbucks, the horse and carriage and Coach bags … and the list goes on and on.
9. Disney Quickly Filed For Rights to ‘SEAL Team 6’
Just two days after SEAL Team 6 stormed Osama Bin Laden’s Pakistani compound, the Walt Disney Co. applied to trademark “SEAL Team 6.” The company wanted to use the vaunted name for items ranging from snow globes to Christmas stockings. The Navy responded with a flood of filings for phrases ranging from “SEAL Team” to “Navy SEALs,” noting rather straightforwardly that the name is synonymous with “membership in an organization of the Department of the Navy that develops and executes military missions involving special operations strategy, doctrine, and tactics.” After the Navy’s filing — and plenty of ridicule online — Disney withdrew the application, citing “deference to the Navy.”
8. Woman Wanted to Sell ‘I Can’t Breathe’ Apparel
The death of Eric Garner in New York became the latest in a series of alleged police brutality cases to gain worldwide attention in July 2014. A month later, an Illinois woman, Catherine Crump, was allegedly making apparel emblazoned with Garner’s last words: “I can’t breathe.” She applied to protect the phrase that winter. Crump, who had not consulted with the Garner family, was not awarded the trademark due to the false implication that her items were connected to Garner and his estate. Garner’s family has threatened to sue Crump if she fails to withdraw the application. Trademark officials have rejected registrations for similar phrases such as “Black Lives Matter.” In the latter case, the USPTO claims the phrase “merely conveys an informational social, political, religious, or similar kind of message.”
7. Many People Want ‘Je Suis Charlie’ Trademark
The same month that members of an al-Qaeda offshoot attacked the Paris offices of the satirical publication Charlie Hebdo, the USPTO rejected trademark applications from a California trust and a Florida merchandiser for the use of “Je Suis Charlie,” the international rallying cry of support for the magazine’s staff in the aftermath of the January 2015 tragedy. The latter applicant, in an oddly worded statement, said it wished to use the phrase for “charitable purposes … respectful discourse platforms we hope to positively encourage.” Latin American Trading Group, on the other hand, aimed to add the phrase to luggage, dining goods, clothes and other items. European authorities reportedly rejected “scores” of such attempts to trademark the phrase that January alone.
6. Sarah Palin Applied to Trademark Her Name
After Sarah Palin filed to trademark her name, and the name of her daughter, Bristol, in 2011, news reports noted the applications had been rejected. Why? Palin and her daughter both forgot to sign their applications. Four months after the story broke, signed applications to trademark the Palins’ names and images were approved by the USPTO. Legal experts weighed in on the issue, saying it’s unusual for politicians to trademark names since they generally are not associated with “commercially valuable products or services.” The Palins, who have since established a media presence, are a notable exception.
5. Donald Trump Fails in Bid to Register ‘You’re Fired’
Easily the most controversial of the many 2016 GOP presidential candidates, Donald Trump lost a 2004 bid to capitalize on the popularity of his TV show, The Apprentice. The real estate tycoon attempted to register a trademark for his phrase, “You’re Fired” for use in a game. USPTO officials feared this product could be mistaken for an already-trademarked educational board game, “You’re Hired.” A Chicago entrepreneur also expressed concern that business at her pottery shop of the same name would suffer.
While there are many benefits to trademarking these “signature sayings,” trademark experts at LegalZoom say there are common reasons for these types of trademark applications to be rejected. At the top of the list are those requests that resemble “trademark already registered with the USPTO, so that use would likely cause confusion, mistake or deception …”
4. Two Attempts to Register ‘Uppity Negro’ Failed
The term “Uppity Negro” has controversial roots dating to the Jim Crow-era South, when African Americans were described as “uppity” agitators if they demanded greater rights. According to the USPTO database listing the status of trademark applications, two different sources have requested formal use of this controversial phrase. The Uppity Negro Movement filed in August 2009, in hopes of “Imprinting messages about black empowerment on wearing apparel, accessories and mugs.” In 2003 and 2013, a D.C.-based woman filed to use the term for much the same reason; imprinting messages on apparel and mugs.
Several online stories report a trademark has been granted for “Uppity Negro”; those stories question how that term is not regarded as offensive, if the term “Redskins” crosses the line. But those filings for Uppity Negro are listed on the USPTO site as “dead.” That said, there is a woman by the same name who sells T-shirts, mugs and totes online through the Uppity Negro Lab site.
3. Patriots’ Reason to Protect “19-0” is Foiled
With the New England Patriots posting an 18-0 record heading into the 2008 Super Bowl, many apparently thought they were a lock to win the big game. T-shirts were already printed, and to protect these goods, the team applied to trademark “19-0” and “19-0 The Perfect Season.” In case you missed the game, the New York Giants upset the Patriots. The New York Post enjoyed the last laugh, having already filed its own trademark application, “18-1,” to support the home team.
2. Several Trademarks Issued For 9/11 Phrase ‘Let’s Roll’
Since 9/11, when Flight 93 passenger Todd Beamer’s phrase became a legacy of that dark day, 17 applications bearing “Let’s Roll” have been submitted — and approved. Those winning trademarks include one for Heroic Choices, a charity that formerly went by the name the “Todd Beamer Foundation.” Yet 16 additional claims were granted to companies using “Let’s Roll” for a number of items. It appears, however, that many of these items use “roll” in the very literal sense as the products in question range from paint rollers to rolling luggage.
1. Harvard Trademarks JFK’s ‘Ask what you can do’
Harvard University owns the trademark rights to a key part of the most famous line in John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inaugural speech, in which he says, “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.” Harvard University trademarked “Ask what you can do” to promote its Kennedy School of Government. The institution has a history of success with the USPTO; Harvard has also secured trademark registrations for true-isms such as “Lessons learned” and “Managing yourself.” The fact these phrases are so commonplace, yet have earned a trademark, has stirred some controversy.