-Martha Engel, Attorney
Today is Veterans Day, and we all owe veterans (and their families) a debt of gratitude for their service and their sacrifices to ensure our freedom. Veterans are our friends, our family, our neighbors, our co-workers, and probably even the person ahead of you in line at Starbucks today grabbing a red cup of coffee. Thanks to all our veterans for their courage and their efforts to keep us safe.
There are many symbols used to show support for veterans and active military, including yellow ribbons and service flags. Now a group wants to make green lights another one of these symbols. I was touched by the message and sentiment behind this ad that I recently saw for the Greenlight a Vet program. The idea is to turn on a green light at your home to show support for veterans. At the end of the ad, it mentions that it’s “supported by Walmart.”
The applied-for services in each are identified as “promoting public awareness of social issues, namely, supporting and hiring of veterans of the armed forces.” And, all four of the applications were filed by Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Based on the ad, I expected some veterans organization to own the marks, not the #1 company on the Fortune 500 list. But this seems to be part of Wal-Mart’s larger initiative to hire 250,000 veterans by 2020.
Social movements seem to be growing, especially as participation in social media has increased rapidly. However, a search for active applications and registrations on the USPTO’s website reveals only 21 applications or registrations with a description including “promoting public awareness of social issues.” Aside from the four for the Greenlight a Vet marks, the rest were filed by individuals or small entities.
Trademark protection provides a trademark owner with an exclusive right to use a trademark when use of the mark by another is likely to confuse consumers. Should corporations like Wal-Mart be granted an exclusive right to use a trademark not for lightbulbs or retail store services or veterans services, but rather for a trademark for promoting public awareness of a social issue?