However, just because that venerable right is written into the fabric of our law, it doesn’t mean people don’t try to abuse it. Every year, there are countless millions of applications submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, many of which are quickly denied for frivolity or because they’re just trying to cash in on someone else’s hard work or good name.
Jaia Thomas, an attorney in New York City who specializes in intellectual property rights for athletes and celebrities, weighs in on the necessity to protect a phrase, nickname, or likeness:
“It’s extremely important. One of the main reasons is for economic reasons. You don’t want other companies, other individuals, making a profit off of your name or your logo or your brand, so it’s extremely important for athletes to rush to secure all the IP [intellectual property] rights so others don’t make a profit off of them. It’s also good just in terms of brand building. As athletes start to build their brand it’s good to start to protect their individual property rights as soon as possible.”
Here are some of the craziest, most interesting, and downright bizarre copyrights and trademarks. In part 1 of this series we’ll highlight those that were approved, and part 2 will share the ones that are pending or have already been denied.
The happy birthday song.
In the late 19th century, a little song with only six words started being sung to celebrate birthdays. Believe it or not, a subsidiary of Warner/Chappell Music, Inc. now holds the protected copyright on that song, raking in about $2 million a year in licensing fees off of ‘Happy Birthday to You.’ But they own the copyright until the year 2030, so don’t wait to sing it and blow out your candles.
The word “yup.”
Dave Hester, personality from A&E’s show, Storage Wars, trademarked his signature phrase, “Yuuup!” However, Hester’s Yup sounds a lot like rapper Trey Songz’s “Yuup!” which he uses in songs. The two improbably adversaries are locked up in a legal battle over their yups.
Let’s get ready to rumble!
Michael Buffer, the man who became a boxing announcing franchise based on his one phrase, “Let’s get read to rumble!” trademarked the term long ago. Reportedly, he’s made over $400 million worldwide on royalties and licensing.
The NFL wants you to watch a big game in February that rhymes with “Uper Troll,” they just don’t want you to say it. Actually, they don’t want businesses to use the name of their big game to advertise and cash in, so they trademarked it. They also want to fiercely protect the value of anything tied to the Super Bowl so companies will keep shelling out millions for commercial spots. Apparently, they really do enforce it, sending out thousands of preemptive cease and desist letters every season.
An American corporation actually successfully trademarked a rare ayahuasca vine, a plant native to the Amazon rain forest and used for medical purposes. I’m pretty sure the people native to that area weren’t consulted or paid royalties.
Incredibly, companies have already slapped copyright claims on about 20 percent of the gene sequencing we share as human beings. Some firms, like Myriad Genetics Inc., control the market by holding the trademark on genes that are linked to certain types of cancer, and make big bucks manufacturing drugs to treat it. The American Civil Liberties Union took issue, challenging the copyright in 2010, with the backing of 150,000 scientists, but was shot down.
Law enforcement agencies.
A few police departments have sued for copyright infringement when outside companies were making money off their likeness. As any tourist can see in New York City, the NYPD logo and brand adorns t-shirts, mugs, and all sorts of other merchandise, none of which is sanctioned by the actual police department. But in 2005, the NYPD sued a pizza chain that was using their name and logo, and won.
Canada’s Royal Mounted Police have also trademarked their name and likeness so others don’t cash in without their permission.
Paris Hilton received some great business advice a while ago when she trademarked her signature catchphrase, “That’s hot!” She even sued Hallmark when the greeting card giant started using the expression – and her image – on their cards in 2007.
Sounds on television and movies.
NBC has an approved trademark on the three-tone jingle you can hear to introduce its brand, and the lion’s roar is trademarked by MGM.
The social media platform Facebook is so omnipotent that they trademarked the use of “Face” in conjunction with any other telecommunication products or services, stopping imitators from cashing in with putting out “Face-Mail,” “Face-Messaging,” etc. products.
A certain shade of orange.
Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups too exception that a competitor, Dove’s Chocolate Peanut Butter Promises, was using the same shade of orange in their packaging. So Reese’s applied to trademark that exact color – and was approved.
When NBA player Jeremey Lin rose to overnight meteoric fame with the New York Kicks in 2010, the popular moniker “Linsanity” was quickly trademarked. The good news is that it was Lin himself who trademarked it, cashing in every time it was used for merchandising. By the way, Lin went to Harvard.
A Russian beard.
A Russian man named Mikhail Verbitsky actually trademarked his beard successfully, as he claimed it was a “racial attribute” specific to certain Russian ethnic groups.
A woman in California, Celia Clarke, had her trademark for a unique scent approved in 1990. Apparently, “a high-impact, fresh floral fragrance reminiscent of plumeria blossoms” is worth preserving from others sniffing around.
The word “Superhero.”
Marvel and DC Comics have co-owned the trademark for the word to describe their supernatural heroes since 1981.
“You cannot be serious.”
Tennis icon and bad boy John McEnroe copyrighted his signature phrase once he retired.
Anything and everything sports related.
Almost every notable athlete holds trademarks these days to try and protect their brand and open up a new revenue stream. Reggie Jackson has Mr. October, Johnny Manziel owns Johnny Football, Wayne Gretzky the Great One 99, Michael Jordan Flight 23 and His Airness, Lebron James holds King James, Tim Tebow holds the copyright on Tebowing and Usain Bolt owns the copyright on his signature lightning bolt pose, to name a few.