Superb Owl And Other Copyright Loopholes

Trademarks™, copyrights©, and bears, oh my!

These little symbols are everywhere. Heck, scroll down the page you're reading. See, bottom left? © 2018, Dictionary.com LLC. (Limited Liability Company.)

Companies and individuals use these symbols, and the legal weight behind them, to protect their intellectual property, their identities, their assets . . . the whole spectrum of commerce. And, sometimes the most common phrases are actually trademarked or copyrighted by companies. So, let's take a look at some of the words and phrases you're using . . . illegally (without even knowing it).

Just kidding, trademarks only prohibit people from using the words and phrases commercially.

"Let's get ready to rummmmmble!"

Five words that are known to sports fans around the world. You've undoubtedly heard the phrase, and there's that guy with the deep voice and the tux who's always saying it. His name is Michael Buffer, he's a professional (boxing) ring announcer, and you can bet he has trademarked that phrase.

He started using it in the mid-1980s and trademarked it in the 1990s. It's been said that he has sued over 100 companies and public figures for using the phrase.

So, where did the phrase come from? Sports Illustrated says "Buffer tried out a series of less successful calls, including 'Man your battle stations' and 'Fasten your seat belts,' before drawing from Muhammad Ali's 'I'm ready to rumble!'"

High-profile police departments have an image and a brand to protect. (Bad boys, bad boys, whatcha' gonna do.) Take the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, colloquially known as The Mounties. The RCMP has been cracking down on trademark infringement since the mid-1990s, and they even signed on with Disney to control licensing over their image. Mom-and-pop stores in the Great White North can still keep selling Mountie merch, as long as 10 percent goes back to the guys in red.

The New York Police Department also keeps a close eye on their brand. Cracked.com reported that the NYPD "sent cease-and-desist letters to everyone from NYPD-themed restaurants to nonprofit associations run by retired NYPD officers." That's rough.

However, a pizza chain called "NYPD Pizza" was allowed to keep its name after a settlement, though they did need to change their logo and issue a disclaimer stating there was no connection to the "real" NYPD.

If you're a parent, you probably went through a million onesies when your kids were little. And, if you're not a parent, you've probably bought countless onesies for friends and family who recently had little ones. But, guess what? The term onesie is trademarked, of course.

Gerber laid claim to this one. And, they'll come after you too. One woman on Etsy wasn't aware that the term was trademarked, and Gerber let her know about it. "That’s right, my part-time hobby Etsy shop that sells handmade onesies–I’m sorry, bodysuits–is apparently a threat to the corporate behemoth."

Want to try and find an end-run loophole around the Big G? It's not advisable. The website LiveAndCo.com says "Anything confusingly similar is not allowed either, so [no] 'onsie,' 'onezie,' '1Z.'" The recommended terms to use: bodysuit, diaper shirt, one piece, snapsuit, and baby jumpsuit.

Shabby chic is a style of home decorating where the items in question purposely look aged and distressed. Most people think it's a generic, descriptive term, but if it's on this list it must be a trademarked one (it belongs to Rachel Ashwell).

Etsy was one to get burned for using the phrase as a category on their website. They've since changed it to cottage chic. How quaint. Another loophole: shabby elegance in place of the trademarked term.

The Super Bowl. It's the one-day crown jewel of American pro sports, and there's a lot of money attached to it. Where there's money, there are trademarks.

When the first Super Bowl was played in January of 1967, it was merely the "AFL/NFL World Championship." They stumbled onto the name we all know quite by accident, and the rest is history. The NFL takes its game (and the sponsors who pay huge money for the ride) very seriously.

Advertisers that want to align themselves to the game, but who haven't paid a fee to use the term Super Bowl in their ads, will go to other measures to get the point across. It's called "ambush marketing." Now, because of this type of marketing, words like big game are synonymous with the Super Bowl. (And, yes the NFL has tried to trademark Big Game too.)

Some companies get really clever in their attempts to circumvent the Super Bowl name, but the most interesting loophole of all is from late-night comic impresario Stephen Colbert who didn't feel like getting a nasty-gram from the NFL. So, he decided to call it the Superb Owl instead.

The great Michael Jordan has had to go to great lengths to protect his name, brand, and likeness, especially in China where some products have been known to be, uh, iFakes. He's even filed suits against the use of Qiaodan: his English name’s Mandarin transliteration. Trademark infringement for the Jordan brand isn't just an overseas matter as you can probably surmise.

But, most people think Jordan isn't in the wrong. DePaul University's School of Communications instructor Ron Culp said "It's critically important for individuals and companies to do everything possible to protect their brands. They have their own vision of what they will do and who they will affiliate with, and they have to be very cautious to make sure it's consistent with how they are projecting their brand image."

Jordan is widely acknowledged as the greatest basketball player of all time, and that's a valuable reputation to protect on and off the court. So, don't try to use any type of translation of his name, his jersey number, a similar replica to the jumping man on Air Jordan's, or any insinuation to the brand . . . because he'll slam ya.

If a company is so dominant in a particular field that they become somewhat synonymous with the field itself (oh, let's say, Facebook and social media) they may take proactive steps to make sure no one crowds their turf.

Business Insider reports that Facebook trademarked the word face, but that the TM only applies "to telecommunication services, so companies like The North Face are safe." Wow.

Look! Up in the sky! It's a bird, it's a plane, it's a Super Hero.

That term is used to describe someone who exhibits qualities peculiar to the genre. You know, flying with a cape and a flashy costume, super strength, speed, agility. Maybe with an invisible plane or a secret underground lair.

It's interesting to note that while everyone calls anyone like that a Super Hero, it's actually a trademarked term! DC Comics Partnership, Marvel Characters, Inc. trademarked this one way back in March of 1967. The generic term is superhero.

Ronald Coleman is an intellectual property lawyer, and he said on NPR, for Marvel/DC to protect the word as a trademark, it takes "a little bit of audacity and a lot of lawyers on retainer with a generous mixture of judicial indifference."

The word Realtor, as in someone who sells real estate, is a trademarked word—who would've guessed.

If you are a Realtor, that means you are a member of the National Association of Realtors. (You probably get an official NAR membership certificate suitable for framing.) The NAR website is very precise about this. They also hold trademarks for REALTOR®, REALTORS®, REALTOR-ASSOCIATE®, and the REALTOR® block "R" logo.

The loophole to using Realtor is the obvious real-estate agent. Easy enough.

Believe it or not, Harley-Davidson attempted to trademark . . . the sound of their motorcycles. It's not unheard of to try such a thing; even the three-note NBC chime and the MGM lion roar are TM'd. But, this revving sound was rejected by the TM powers that be some years back, and the company tossed in the towel after one rejection.

The Simpsons have pushed, pulled, and torn the envelope just about every way they could over their lengthy run. They've found a way over the years to walk right up to the trademark edge without falling off. Examples?

If you're out with the Simpsons family, you're likely to visit the "66¢ Store," "It's a Wonderful Knife," "Abercrombie & Rich," "Paté LaBelle," or "TGI McScratchy's Good Time Fooddrinkery."

These writers are the true masters of the copyright loophole.

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