Can you Trademark a Word or Phrase?

I’m surprise to find that the article I read the other daythe article I read the other day has inspired a second article by me, but here we are. Something else that interested me in the article was the fact that Michael Buffer, has become a millionaire by licensing the trademark for the phrase Let’s Get Ready to Rumble. It’s probable that you read that in your mind in a very specific voice, and that voice is Michael Buffer’s. Buffer, a boxing and wrestling ring announcer, became famous for his catchphrase, delivered in his unique style. In 1992 he registered the phrase as a trademark, and since then has earned about $400 million from it.

It feels a little odd to trademark a phrase, because surely we’re free to put words in any combination we want, aren’t we? That being said, I also understand how a very specific phrase can become trademarked. Before Buffer started using the phrase before matches, no-one had really ever used it before, so I get why he claims it. And I think it sounds strange to people that he’s trademarked it because they’re not aware that he came up with the term. I mean, you wouldn’t be surprised to hear that McDonald’s weren’t happy about a small burger chain using I’m Lovin’ it, because you assume someone was paid a fortune to come up with that slogan, and that McDonald’s own it.

And you wouldn’t find it strange that any works of art with words, like songs or books, are copyrighted (very quickly by the way: what’s the difference between a trademark and a copyright? Basically, copyright protects creative works, and trademarks protect names, phrases, and symbols associated with products or services). I think this shows that the key to words or phrases being officially protected is how unique or complex they are. You can trademark a unique phrase, or copyright a poem that you’ve created, but not a single word or simple phrase that you didn’t come up with yourself. Fair enough, really.

But the mention of Buffer in the article made me think of a trademark controversy while I was writing yesterday’s post. I recalled that last year the Fine Brothers had tried to trademark the word react. You might not have heard of these two chaps, but you’ve probably seen at least the thumbnails of some of their videos. They’re responsible for a whole series of “X react to X” videos on YouTube, such as Children React to VCR’s! or Old People React to Fidget Spinners!

People were understandably outraged by their attempt, largely because reaction videos are so common that it was absurd that two people could try to stop everyone else from making such videos and using a form of the word react in the title. It’d be like a filmmaker trademarking the word horror and stopping anyone else from making scary films. For me, the more absurd thing was attempting to trademark such a basic word, even if it was only in reference to “entertainment services, namely, providing an on-going series of programs and webisodes via the Internet in the field of observing and interviewing various groups of people.” It’s not as though they were trying to stop anyone ever using the word react, but can you imagine if they’d been successful, and no-one was ever able to publish a video online which featured both groups of people being interviewed, and the word react?

Fortunately the brothers quickly gave up their attempt after the backlash it provoked, but they’re not the first to try to trademark such a basic word. Late last year, the Icelandic government challenged the granting of a trademark licence of the word Iceland to the British frozen-food supermarket chain Iceland by the EU. The government argued that giving the supermarket the licence made it more difficult for Icelandic companies to sell their products in the EU, particularly frozen fish. However, the Icelandic government had not trademarked any names including the word Iceland, and though it’s not possible to trademark national flags or emblems, there’s nothing to stop the name of a country being trademarked. I’m not actually sure if this situation has been resolved yet, as there’s nothing about it online, so if you have any information please let me know.

Trademarking common phrases isn’t always about naked greed though. You might remember that during the terrorist attacks of 11 September 2001, Todd Beamer, passenger on the hijacked flight United Airlines 93, was heard saying Let’s roll, as he and other passengers prepared to tackle the hijackers. You might be surprised to learn that his widow was successfully granted a trademark on the phrase in 2002, on behalf of the Todd M. Beamer Foundation. While this may initially seem callous, and unusual, considering the phrase has been in common use since at least 1908, the situation is a little more complex than you might think. After the attacks, a lot of people latched onto the phrase as an example of the indomitable American spirit, often using it quite cynically. George W. Bush used it twice in major speeches, and many singers and bands used the phrase in cheesy songs. In fact, a lot of such people sought to trademark the phrase in order to profit from it. Beamer’s friends and family therefore sought to gain the trademark for use of the phrase in “pre-recorded compact discs, audio tapes, digital audio tapes, and phonograph records featuring music,” in order to ensure that any profits made from the use of the phrase went to the families of victims of the attacks.

So while it might seem unjust and restrictive to commodify a phrase by trademarking it, sometimes when we look into the situation, we can realise that much worse things could be done with the phrase.

12 thoughts on “Can you Trademark a Word or Phrase?

  1. Can I trademark a phrase? :P. You really do see that TM sign everywhere! If you’re a business it must become increasingly hard to come up with a phrase or a slogan which no one has trademarked yet!


    • I’m sure you can trademark “The Emma Edit!” I imagine the great fear of people in advertising is coming up with a great slogan, then checking online and finding some small company has already used it! It’s an interesting challenge, creating a slogan that’s catchy, memorable, and sums up the product

      Liked by 1 person

    • That’s an interesting question. I can’t remember it ever coming up, but I suppose hope is based more on something real, and faith doesn’t require evidence. I can imagine them being difficult to distinguis.

      Liked by 1 person

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