A trademark is something used to confirm and secure your intellectual property. You make up a delightful cartoon mouse that captains a boat; you trademark it so no one can steal it and then build an empire. It’s easy. But sometimes those who want a trademark have issues with what exactly constitutes intellectual property and instead try to get a little broad and, dare we say, greedy, with what a trademark can cover.
10. Disney Tried to Trademark Seal Team 6
Let’s kick things off with what is going to be a recurring theme behind some entries. At some point in time a trademark came to be less a way to secure an idea, and more of a way to try to force people to pay you for talking about something in the public eye.
On May 3, 2011, the Disney Corporation sought to trademark the term “SEAL Team 6.” This was in the aftermath of the actual SEAL Team 6 killing Osama bin Laden, the onetime most wanted man in the world and the terrorist who orchestrated the 9/11 attacks.
SEAL Team 6 was huge news after what happened and Disney apparently thought they could make bank on that if they owned the name. Of course, being that SEAL Team 6 was a group of real, living human beings, and SEAL teams are members of the Navy, and none of them have anything at all to do with Disney, the plan didn’t go over well. Maybe it had something to do with the fact that the trademark request would also cover things like snow globes and Christmas stockings.
Less than two weeks later, Disney dropped their trademark request after they were thoroughly roasted in the media. Disney’s plan was to create a TV show, sort of like NCIS, about SEALs. The Navy had to make a countermove to protect the name since they actually are the SEALs and the whole thing made Disney look greedy and opportunistic. Somewhat ironically, CBS developed a show called SEAL Team six years later.
9. Disney Tried to Trademark Dia De Los Muertos
Let’s not let Disney off the hook yet. Two years after their SEAL team run, they tried to trademark an entire holiday, filing a claim to make Dia de los Muertos a part of the House of Mouse. Dia de los Muertos is a widely celebrated holiday in Mexico and involves big celebrations meant to honor and remember those who have died. Despite the seemingly somber nature, it’s also meant to be a lively and fun time.
In 2017, Disney/Pixar released the movie Coco but in the lead up to its release they had not decided on a title or much beyond the idea that it was going to be about the Day of the Dead. They filed a trademark for the name and were immediately met with a backlash from people accusing them of exploitation and cultural appropriation. Disney’s trademark attempt would have covered everything from fruit baskets to jewelry. They even tossed in non-medicated toiletries.
The backlash resulted in a widely shared petition and protests. Disney eventually relented, suggesting that they were only looking to trademark the name of their movie and that they had decided to use a different title.
8. Harley Davidson Tried to Trademark the Sound of Their Bikes
Harley Davidson arguably makes the most famous motorcycles in the world. They’re highly coveted and pretty well iconic in terms of biker culture. And while Harleys do have a distinctive look about them, the company felt that they also produced a distinctive sound. So distinctive, in fact, it was worthy of trademark protection.
For six years the company fought in courts to lay claim to not just the sound but other design elements like the tear-drop shaped gas tank, the curve of the fenders and the general shape of the bikes. Other manufacturers were putting up legal fights since some of those elements were arguably pretty generic and the sound of the engine was not the sound of a Harley, per se, but the sound of any bike with a V-twin engine. The company finally gave in and dropped their efforts. According to a spokesperson from Harley, the company was tired of spending millions on a case that had no end in sight.
7. A French Company Tried to Trademark The Scent of Strawberry
Trademarks can be tricky things. A character, a movie name, a song title, these things all make sense as potential trademarks. But what about more esoteric things? We just saw an attempt at a sound but what about tastes? Or smells?
In 2005, a French company tried their hand at trademarking the smell of strawberries. This wasn’t born in a vacuum, either. A Dutch company had inexplicably managed to trademark the smell of fresh cut grass which they used to make tennis balls. As nonsensical as that sentence sounded, it’s still accurate.
Eden Sarl tried to trademark strawberry scent for use in soaps and lotions. They were, however, denied on the grounds that one strawberry may smell differently from another strawberry so you can hardly claim strawberry smell as your “thing.”
6. Subway Tried to Trademark “Footlong”
Most restaurants that sell submarine sandwiches offer them in 6-inch and 12-inch sizes. The 12-inch subs are often called footlongs because they’re a foot long. Not too hard to figure that one out. But Subway, the biggest of the sandwich chains, decided that they wanted to own the term “footlong” and they went so far as to send cease and desist letters to other sandwich chains telling them they could no longer legally use the term footlong as Subway had laid claim to it.
Sending the letters was what you might describe as both bold and underhanded since Subway had only filed for a trademark and they by no means legally owned the term. And, once the Trademark officer went over the application, it was rejected anyway. In fact, Subway kept the whole matter tied up for nearly 7 years trying to prove that people out and about in the world strongly associated the idea of a footlong sandwich exclusively with their brand. The office disagreed, pointing out most people think it just describes the size of a sandwich, not the restaurant that makes it. That meant they had to remove the ™ symbols they’d added to all their menu boards for a term they’d never really trademarked.
5. McDonalds Couldn’t Hold an EU Trademark on “Mc”
McDonalds is all about branding as witnessed by their menu which contains the McNuggets, McFlurry, McMuffin, McWrap, McChicken and McEverything else. It’s not surprising to learn that the company tried to trademark the “Mc” prefix in Ireland and things did not go over so well, thanks to Supermac’s, a different fast food chain.
The European Union had to weigh in on who had the right to use the Mc prefix but Supermac’s, which has been in Ireland since 1978 and has over 100 locations, managed to hold their own. The case determined McDonald’s had not proven any exclusive ownership over Mc, but it also conceded that some items, like McNuggets, had been so well established that the trademark could be upheld. They just couldn’t have carte blanche to use it on every product under the sun. Because they weren’t doing anything with it for at least 5 years, which under EU meant they weren’t really serious about using the trademark, it opened the door to Supermac’s or any McRestaurant, really.
4. Damon Wayans Tried to Trademark an Offensive Term
Comedian Damon Wayans is by no means averse to causing trouble for others when he’s motivated to do so. He was famously fired from Saturday Night Live after a very brief run because of a creative disagreement. He went off script and played a background character as flamboyantly and stereotypically gay.
Sometime later in life, Wayans made an attempt to trademark a word that we’re just not going to say here. To clarify as best as possible, it was the version of the N-word that ends in a soft A.
Wayans’ attempt to trademark the word was for use in a clothing line and a retail store. The attempt was rejected twice by the trademark office and, though no official reason was given by them, trademark lawyers had no trouble explaining it. There are rules on the books about trademarking terms that are scandalous or offensive to a group of people.
While many have tried to trademark the word in the past, or argue it’s not offensive in a certain context, the trademark office does not agree.
3. Donald Trump Tried to Trademark “You’re Fired”
Before he ran the free world, Donald Trump ran a reality TV show boardroom on the show The Apprentice. Each week, a contestant (possibly a celebrity) would be kicked off the show after Trump zinged them with the line “you’re fired.” It became a sort of catchphrase and, naturally, Trump tried to trademark it.
The plan was to copyright it for use in games, but the attempt was rejected for fear it would be confused with an already existing game called “You’re Hired.”
2. Cheerios Tried to Trademark Yellow
Head to any supermarket today and you’ll find dozens of different kinds of cereal on shelves. There’s so much cereal it often has its own aisle in stores. And one of the most easily recognizable kinds is Cheerios in their iconic, bright yellow box.
General Mills, the company that makes Cheerios, were so convinced of that iconic status that they filed a trademark claim on their box. Not the name, which they’ve already trademarked, or the design or the typeface or any of the things that seem like they’d make for a reasonable trademark. No, they wanted to trademark yellow. The color yellow.
Their attempt ended up going to court where they lost their colorful attempt. In the ruling it was pointed out that they had literally done nothing to stake a claim on somehow owning yellow, and plenty of other cereals come in yellow boxes. And, true enough, Corn Pops, Golden Grahams, Honey Bunches of Oats, Sugar Crisp, Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries, and many more are all in yellow boxes, too.
The court also pointed out that Cheerios come in a variety of flavors and none of the other boxes, like Honey Nut Cheerios, even use yellow, so it’s not like they’re married to the color.
1. A Businessman Tried to Trademark “September 11th, 2001”
Sometimes what would have otherwise been an unremarkable and mundane trademark is rendered borderline appalling and offensive as a result of nothing more than timing and circumstance. Such was the case when a businessman named Moti Shniberg tried to file a trademark for “September 11th, 2001.”
While much of the world was reeling and in shock from the most brazen terrorist attack in history, and the deadliest on American soil, while it was playing out in real time, live on television with the Twin Towers crumbling in flames and people jumping to their deaths in a desperate attempt to escape, Shniberg realized he was witnessing something huge and historic and wanted to make money off of it.
The trademark application would have covered use of the historical date in “various forms of entertainment, including TV dramas, news shows, theater productions and musical variety, news and comedy shows.” His claim was it would be for charitable purposes. Sure. Of course it was.
Shniberg was one of more than two dozen others who tried to file some kind of claim over the date and its events. Many of them wanted to trademark its use as a slogan so they could put it on hats and mugs and such. Who wouldn’t want a fashionable September 11th hat to wear with their Hindenburg t-shirt?
The claims were all rejected because you can’t trademark a date or anything the public couldn’t recognize as a mark.