Seth Godin has an amazing knack for creating and spreading ideas that matter, mostly really good ones, by the way. I always look forward to his daily riffs and I have been known to spread some of his important ideas too when they overlap with things I happen to care a lot about.
When it comes to Mr. Godin’s trademark advice, however, I’m not feeling it, sorry (that wasn’t an apology either). Some of it is, well, lacking an indispensable quality. Even when it is accompanied by this witty disclaimer: "I’m not a lawyer. I don’t even play one on TV. If you rely on my legal advice, you’re getting exactly what you paid for."
The problem is, sometimes you end up getting much less than you anticipated and actually end up much worse off, when you follow down even a "free" path based on misunderstandings and misconceptions, at least as they relate to one’s legal rights.
I’ll never forget one evening watching Geraldo Live during the O.J. trial, more than fifteen years ago, as a young trademark lawyer. There was quite a stir about some trademark applications Mr. Simpson had filed for O.J. Simpson, Juice, and O.J., around the time of O.J. Simpson being charged with the murder of Nicole Simpson. I recall one of Simpson’s defense lawyers, the brilliant constitutional lawyer Alan Dershowitz, rebuffing criticism about the trademark filings, unwittingly contending that Simpson never intended to use or benefit from those applications, he simply filed them to make sure no one else could. My jaw dropped when I heard this, because it provided a legal basis to immediately invalidate each one of the applications. In addition, had anyone followed this defensive "legal advice," their trademark filings would have been wasted money and considered invalid and void ab initio, since U.S. trademark law requires that an applicant must have a bona fide intention to use the mark on each and every good and service listed in the application.
One way is to misuse trademark law. With the help of search engines, greedy lawyers who charge by the letter are busy sending claim letters to anyone who even comes close to using a word or phrase they believe their client ‘owns’. News flash: trademark law is designed to make it clear who makes a good or a service. It’s a mark we put on something we create to indicate the source of the thing, not the inventor of a word or even a symbol.
While there are certainly some greedy trademark lawyers in the world, and some that overreach on behalf of their client brand owners, even honorable and ethical trademark attorneys worth their hourly rate know that federal protection against dilution for truly famous marks was added to U.S. trademark law about fifteen years ago. At least for marks satisfying the difficult fame standard, these kinds of trademarks come darn close to owning the brand name in gross, that is, in connection with any goods or services.
For the garden variety and non-famous trademark, the scope of rights is defined by whether or not there is a Likelihood of Confusion.
With respect to what trademark law was designed for, and while I don’t consider this to be a news flash any longer, well prior to dilution protection being added, U.S. trademark law was amended to make clear that much more than confusion as to source is covered. All the way back in 1962 the Lanham Trademark Act was amended by striking language requiring confusion, mistake or deception of "purchasers as to the source of origin of such goods and services." Moreover, a much broader scope of confusion protection was codified in 1989 in Lanham Act Section 43(a), which protects against trademark likelihood of confusion not only as to source, but as to affiliation, connection, sponsorship, association, and/or approval. This additional scope of trademark protection makes perfect sense given the current commercial realities of trademark licensing, franchises, co-branding, affiliate marketing, and OEM relationships.
I’m not saying Seth Godin’s opinions about trademarks are Out of Bounds, I’m simply saying some of them are out of date.
With a little luck, and assuming I can get in enough time in front of my Stuart Smalley mirror between now and next week, I’ll explore another misconception or misgiving it appears Mr. Godin has about the registration of trademarks:
Some lawyers will get all excited and encourage (demand!) that you register your trademark. This involves paying a bunch of money, filing a bunch of forms and earning an ® after your name instead of the ™. While the ® does give you some benefits by the time you get to court, it doesn’t actually increase the value of your trademark. And you can wait. So, when you come up with a great name, just ™ it.
So, stay tuned.