Trademarks are there for a reason. If I started an independent burger company called “McDonald’s,” and made golden arches out of the “M” for my logo, some people would understandably get a bit annoyed about it, especially if I also called my flagship burger a “Big Mac.” I’d be masquerading as something I’m not in order to piggy-back off their fame, and (if I was a convincing enough copycat) probably dragging their reputation down too. This is fine. What’s not quite so easy to defend is when people try to lay claim to absurdly ordinary words, names or even sounds, and the worst part is that they’re occasionally successful. Some are confident enough to drag companies into legal proceedings to defend their use of a word like “stealth” in a product. Here are some of the most ridiculous things people have attempted to trademark, although thankfully the majority of these failed.
Walmart – Yellow smiley
The US supermarket chain (and owners of ASDA) Walmart tried to claim ownership of the yellow smiley face in 2006. They weren’t deterred by the fact that it has been used since the 70s, or that it’s basically a simplified human face, but thankfully the people reviewing the application had functioning brains and promptly rejected the claim.
King (Candy Crush Saga) – “Candy”
A commonly-used word (especially in the US) which also happens to be in the name of perpetual-Facebook-invite-generator/casual game Candy Crush Saga was attempted to be registered as a trademark by King, the game’s developers. The “Candy” application was withdrawn in the US because it provoked such a huge backlash, and the company was challenged in the EU by a fellow game developer. They’ve also tried their luck with “saga,” because why the hell not.
Sarah Palin – “Sarah Palin”
Trying to register your own name is one thing, but ex-US vice-presidential candidate and former Alaska governor Sarah Palin’s attempt to do so fell through because she forgot to sign the form! Whether it would have been accepted if she wasn’t too much of a monumental idiot to remember to sign her name is too disconcerting to think about.
Harley Davidson – The sound of a revving engine
That’s right: you can try to trademark sounds. Rather than a jingle, a start-up sound or literally anything that doesn’t occur in some form or another in every single one of your competitors products, Harley Davidson wanted to try to make the noise of their engine a trademark. They weren’t successful, because some people who’d successfully employed a mystical technique known as “listening” were able to determine that it sounds exactly the same as pretty much any other engine in existence.
Dave Hester (Storage Wars) – “Yuuup!”
Simultaneously one of the most annoying people ever to be broadcast over the airwaves and one of the main reasons to watch Storage Wars (in order to more effectively hate him), Dave Hester has attempted to trademark his drawn out “Yuuup!” bidding call. If you don’t know who Dave Hester is, he’s the one who’s incapable of saying “yes” like a normal person and who irritatingly waits until the very last instant to put his bids in on the show. He owns the trademark, but ended up in a legal battle with rapper Trey Songz over his claim to ownership of a slightly colloquial version of a quite obviously integral phrase in the English language.
Paris Hilton – “That’s hot”
This is a depressing one because it was actually approved as a trademark, and all the more so because she also successfully sued Hallmark for using the phrase in 2007. Her trademark specifically relates to the use of the phrase for clothing and alcohol, but it’s still baffling since she hardly coined the use of the word “hot” as a compliment. Maybe the “that” is what makes it characteristically Paris...
Disney – “Dia de los Muertos”
Disney decided to stake their commercial claim over the name of the well-known Mexican holiday Dia de los Muertos (the Day of the Dead), for a film in production. This didn’t last long, though, because within 24 hours the news had annoyed 21,000 people enough to make them sign a petition about it (which is pretty significant in a passive-aggressive, modern sort of way) and Disney promptly withdrew the application.
Nintendo – “It’s on like Donkey Kong”
The phrase “it’s on like Donkey Kong” is not a particularly impressive one, and the first recorded usage comes from rapper Ice Cube in 1992. It had never made an appearance in a Donkey Kong game when the trademark application was filed in 2010 (only having previously being used in an advert in 2001 by Nintendo). Although they obviously own the character, there is no evidence the phrase came from them whatsoever.
Jay-Z and Beyonce – “Blue Ivy Carter”
Why you would want to trademark a person’s name just a few days after they were born? Apparently the answer is “because you’re Jay-Z.” Oh yeah, and because you want to be able to use your child’s name to sell things like baby bedding, skin care products, tablets, laptops, wallets, playing cards and footballs, obviously. The application was approved in January 2013.
Subway – “Footlong”
Subway does notably sell footlongs, but claiming ownership to the term betrays an ignorance of both a commonly used measurement system and your own industry. Footlong sandwiches are not an innovation; they’re just a good size for when you’re pretty hungry and have long bread. That didn’t stop them from applying to trademark the term, but it was rejected for the immediately obvious reason that loads of sandwich shops sell them, and Subway shouldn’t own the word just because it’s rich.
Early Flicker (French company) – Anonymous’ logo
A company attempted to trademark the logo of hacktivist collective Anonymous in France so it could sell bags and t-shirts with it on, despite it already being licensed as Creative Commons. It provoked some expected outrage from the group, and was arguably even done for precisely that purpose, because otherwise it makes no sense: the logo had already been registered as free to share and commercialise. The most plausible explanation is that it was done to get the business some attention, and it seems to have worked.
Jason Gambert – “SEO”
Jason Gambert wasn’t famous until he had the gall to register the widely-used acronym SEO (search engine optimisation) as his own trademark in 2007, and even then nobody really noticed. It was a cheeky move, but was thwarted after a blogger found the applications and drummed up some opposition.
Ravensburger (German game company) – “Memory”
Ravensburger caused a stir when it was discovered the company owned the trademark to the word “memory” for game titles in 42 countries, including France, Germany, India, Russia and Brazil. Ravensburger produces a board game called “memory,” and its trademark led to Apple sending app developers requests to either change game titles or remove offending games from the market in 2012.
Leo Stoller – “Google”
Leo Stoller says he’s an “intellectual property entrepreneur” but has been called the “trademark troll.” Most of his activities revolved around aggressively protecting his trademark on the word “stealth” (from anyone and everyone) but he stepped too far into the realm of absurdity when he decided to claim ownership of the word “Google.” Google already existed, of course, and didn’t exactly agree with his assertion. They accused him of fraudulently claiming trademark rights as a method of bullying people into giving him money. The sad thing is that for his efforts with “stealth,” a few people did pay him off.