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I'm a t-shirt maker at my other job.
We live in America (a wonderful enterprising nation filled with witty comedists and weekend-stand-ups), so it only seems natural that someone would come up with the idea of putting a choice phrase on a t-shirt in the hopes of striking it big and becoming the top seller on CafePress or at those shops in popular tourist shops where the merchandise all looks the same. I’m talking about phrases like “More Cowbell”, “Free Hugs”, and “Kind of a Big Deal”, all of which have become immortal as a result of their connection to some sort of event or pop-culture phenomenon.

That next big phrase could be connected with Anthony Weiner. In case you hadn’t heard, Anthony Weiner has done it again. Check out this trademark application filed two years ago for the mark RE-ERECT WEINER for t-shirts.

How clever is that! The trademark application has since been abandoned by the applicant because they failed to respond to an office action. The office action cited the fact that the trademark included the name of a person as an invalidating characteristic of the trademark (I wonder who that person could be…..) According to the USPTO, the mark identified Anthony Weiner, although no direct reference to Weiner was made in the trademark application. I guess the reasoning of the USPTO was that no one could possibly NOT get the obvious reference to Weiner based on the “erect” portion of the mark (whoever wrote this office action must have had a heck of a laugh) and Anthony Weiner’s flap (don’t read any innuendos into that last phrase, I beg you!). According to the well-supported argument of the USPTO, to use the “WEINER” name as a trademark would require the written consent of Mr. Weiner. Yeah right, like that was going to happen.

But, but…… what of my chances of making it big with this awesome phrase printed on every cheap $2 item known to man!? This gets us to the next portion of the office action, the portion dealing with the ornamental appearance issue. You see, for a phrase to be considered as a trademark, it has to, you know, actually indicate some source. It cannot be used as some sort of decorative phrase on merchandise. It has to say something about where the goods came from. This is why Anthony Weiner would have had to have given his consent to use of a phrase containing his name: people may have thought that the shirts came from him. So when you see a million other people on Café Press using phrases on all kinds of tchotchke items, the phrases on the shirts don’t have any trademark significance because nobody knows SalamanderShirts’ coffee mugs with “I Love N.Y.” from AlibabaTheGreat’s iPod cases bearing the same phrase. 

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This shirt seems quite generic, doesn't it?
So how can a phrase like VOTE FOR PEDRO be trademarked? After all isn’t that phrase too merely ornamental and don’t you see it used on T-shirts and license plate frames and the like? Well, not quite. You see, when somebody encounters another person wearing one of those shirts, they probably put the shirt to a particular source. In this case, the source is the movie studio that produced Napoleon Dynamite. Nobody knows who the heck Joe Smith from Anywhere in the U.S. is who makes shirts on Cafe Press that say “Gun’s Don’t Kill People, I Do”. But even the "VOTE FOR PEDRO" mark faced opposition from the USPTO initially, on the basis that the phrase was not a trademark. The lawyers for 20th Century Fox wisely pointed out that even if the phrase was considered ornamental, it can still be registered as a trademark if it operates to identify a source. The phrase "VOTE FOR PEDRO" did bring to mind a source, the character in the movie Napoleon Dynamite. Indeed, this kind of source designation has found favor with the TTAB in the past,name in the decision of In Re Paramount Pictures Corporation where the TTAB reversed the USPTO examining attorney's refusal of the mark MORK & MINDY for decals for t-shirts. This choice phrase is worth highlighting:

"it is a common merchandising technique in [the U.S.] to license the use of character names and images as trademarks for a variety of products collateral to the product or services in respect of which the name or images are primarily known. Thus, while purchasers may be accustomed to seeing characters' names and images as part of the ornamentation of decals, T-shirts, and the like, they are also accustomed to seeing characters' names and images used as trademarks to indicate source of origin"

Besides, VOTE FOR PEDRO was tied to a very successful film that was critically acclaimed, mentioned numerous times in news reports, and grossed over $100 million between box office ticket sales and DVD sales. So there was likely significant secondary meaning between the phrase and the underlying film.

RE-ERECT WEINER, by contrast, is not tied to any particular source (except Anthony Weiner himself, which is why the USPTO demanded some sort of approval by Weiner for his name to be used as a mark). Perhaps the applicant for "RE-ERECT WEINER" would have been in better shape if he/she had applied for a different mark that wasn’t so obviously connected with Weiner, say the word “WEINER” itself (with the tagline Re-Erect being applied during the production of various items). However the applicant would still likely get an ornamental objection, if they were just using the word as a tagline on a shirt and not in the same way that HOLLISTER or ABERCROMBIE puts their names on the front of shirts. So trademark probably doesn't work (absent a showing of secondary meaning, that people equate the phrase with ONE source).

Thus the applicant would probably have to settle for copyright protection in the designs. Copyright protection in the phrase "Re-erect Wiener" itself is most likely out since the phrase is so short (no puns intended, get your mind out of the gutter!). This works out better for all those t-shirt entrepreneurs who want to make a buck quickly off their political satire because they can make their own shirts too with the phrase.

Sidenote: In case you thought you were going to pick up the phrase that is the subject of this blog post and run with it (no hurt feelings on my part, I don’t even have a Café Press site), it looks like somebody has already beat you to the punch. Somebody on Café Press is selling T-shirts, hats, and other tchotchke items with the phrase “RE-ERECT WIENER”. Nevertheless, the owner of this particular store has taken note of the proper I.P. protection for this particular creation by indicating that all designs are ©. 


 


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