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Trademarking words and phrases gone overboard

October 13, 2010

What a strange thing it is in the United States that companies can patent words and phrases.

Apple recently got clearance to have exclusivity over the phrase ‘there’s an app for that’, which is already well recognised as the brand positioning for their iPhone apps store.

Words that have been copyrighted in the past (but now lapsed) include: Heroin, Laundromat, Petrol, Pilates (copyright was only cancelled in the year 2000), yo-yo, and zipper.

Still protected under US law are words such as: adrenaline, band-aid, matchbox, and many more. Fair enough, as a couple of those are actually company’s brand names.  I thought I’d check out one particular company’s trademarks to get a few examples. I started of course with the perennial punching bag – McDonald’s.

Maybe for example you run a hotel, and you want to advertise ‘great breaks’ that are available for people to come and stay at your location. Nope – sorry. That phrase belongs to McDonald’s. As do odd phrases like ‘tonight’s dinner’, ‘made for you’,  ‘the house that love built’, and ‘you deserve a break today’.

Passionate sporting fans will no doubt be familiar with the trademark Pat Riley, coach of the Los Angeles Lakers  took out in 1989 and still has the rights to. After winning two consecutive championships, he decided it would be a good idea to patent the phrase ‘three-peat’. They never won that third championship while he was coaching the team, but since that time he has no doubt reaped the benefits of two ‘three-peats’ by Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls, another by a future Los Angeles Lakers team (with possibly another coming in 2011), and the New York Yankees at the turn of the century.

Here in Australia, our legal system seems to use slightly more common sense and limits the ability to have exclusivity over certain words and phrases, unless they are genuinely part of a company’s intellectual property or brand identity. It doesn’t make for as interesting or amusing reading, but let me tell you – as you can tell from the title of this blog, I don’t mind it when people use a bit of common sense. Thank god for that.

By the way, my favourite McDonald’s trademarked phrase?



Deliriant Isti Romani – These Romans are crazy!


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