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As the scope of communications grows, politics increasingly intersects with the world of intellectual property in the form of political slogans. A witty and memorable political slogan can capture the imaginations of people. That’s what makes political slogans and trademarks so interesting.
They’re great at attracting votes and revenue.
Political slogans have played a central role in political campaigns since the earliest days of democracy. Some slogans strike a chord with voters and are remembered almost 200 years later.
“Tippecanoe and Tyler Too” was a political slogan used by William Henry Harrison’s campaign in the 1840s. And it’s still taught to schoolchildren. Many such political slogans have become a legacy. They promise a brighter future and directly affect the turnout on election day.
Like nearly every political campaign of the past, many candidates rely on their slogans to raise awareness, encourage people to vote, and attract voters. However, today’s political slogans are not only boosting vote counts. They’re bringing in profits through the sale of campaign merchandise.
So, we decided to explore political slogans as trademarks and decode how they attract votes and revenue.
For anything like a logo, phrase, or slogan to be registered as a trademark, it must be inherently distinctive and unique. Or it must have a secondary meaning that immediately calls to mind a product or service. This secondary meaning is usually proved by either five years of continuous commercial use or by significant sales and advertising.
But, even if a political slogan meets one of these basic requirements, it can still be barred from trademark registration. After the first layer of eligibility, it’s judged on other counts.
Some types of slogans are usually rejected as trademarks. For example, a mark may be rejected if deemed “immoral or scandalous.”
Under Section 2(a) of the Trademark Act, these marks are banned from both Principal and Supplemental Registers. This restriction previously disqualified several disparaging marks.
However, a recent ruling by the TTAB allowed popstar Lizzo to register a trademark for the phrase “100% that bitch". The case marked a historic precedent in this regard.
There is another restriction on trademark registration. A mark identifying a particular living individual will be refused registration if the person does not consent.
On April 13, 2015, the Hillary Clinton campaign filed a trademark application for the trademark slogan, HILLARY FOR AMERICA.
The application listed its intended uses for goods and services in twelve classes. This included obvious uses like political campaign services for fundraising and raising public awareness. But trademark protection was sought to use it on:
This mark required consent from Clinton, which she clearly agreed to provide.
However, the registration of Clinton’s trademark slogan was delayed because a similar mark was filed just two days earlier. An application for the mark HILLIARY (which added an extra “I” to insert the word LIAR in her name) was filed by a third party.
Despite the different spelling, the USPTO still required Hillary’s consent. That’s because the mark clearly referred to Hillary Clinton. As most expected, including the owner of the HILLIARY mark, Clinton never provided her consent.
This mark was abandoned, and HILLARY FOR AMERICA was later registered.
Likewise, on the Republican side, there were marks filed by third parties that referenced Donald Trump. The mark TRUMP IT failed to register, in part, because no consent was ever provided by Donald Trump.
But Trump applied for the mark, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN, back in November of 2012. That was just two weeks after Mitt Romney lost to Barack Obama.
This simple slogan eventually became the rallying point of a controversial election.
After a few extensions, the Statement of Use was filed. The mark was finally added to the Principal Register on July 14, 2015. This mark was filed under:
“Political action committee services, namely, promoting public awareness of political issues” (Class 35) and “Fundraising in the field of politics” (Class 36).
Eventually, Trump filed the mark for various other uses. This included stickers, blogs, dog apparel, bags, wallets, purses, umbrellas, online social networking services, and numerous articles of clothing and accessories, such as the famous hats bearing the mark.
You’d think that a politician’s primary goal for a slogan was to get votes. You might also assume that the vote count could increase by spreading that slogan to as many eyes and ears as possible.
Nevertheless, Trump had sought to limit the use of his MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN mark. This was to protect the revenue streams created by the mark and the goods identified by it. Trump sent cease and desist letters to producers of unauthorized merchandise in the early days of his political campaign.
Alan Marcus is a public relations professional who worked with Trump for years. Marcus explains that, “Conventional politicians think they’re in a business that just goes out of business the first . . . Trump sees his name as a brand that’s his biggest asset.”
While political strategists are impressed with the efficacy of MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN as a slogan, it does have a flipside.
Within a few years of Trump registering the trademark, the USPTO received almost 300 applications for similar slogans derived from it. There were hundreds of versions like “Make America Sane Again” to “Make Our Planet Great Again.”
Political slogans get a lot of publicity through aggressive political campaigning. This means there are likely to be more attempts at riffing on or even intentionally infringing upon a registered trademark. So, if you want to register a political slogan as a trademark, be prepared for such situations.
Working with a trademark attorney while registering such slogans would be helpful. An experienced attorney can help you find ways to best protect your trademark from infringement.
They’ll also be able to help you with other ways to optimize your mark such as through international trademark registration..
And best yet, with us you can even complete your entire trademark registration online.
A successful political slogan can become a legacy that lasts for decades in public memory. So, if you’re trying to trademark a savvy political slogan, remember that with some creativity and foresight, “Yes, we can” make history, too.
Yes, you can trademark a phrase or slogan if it meets the requirements for trademark protection mandated by the USPTO. The phrase or slogan must be distinctive and not generic. It should also be well able to identify the source of goods or services.
A slogan can never be copyrighted. A copyright legally protects original, creative works. A slogan doesn’t meet the minimum requirements for copyright as it’s too short.
The likelihood of confusion is the most common reason for rejecting a trademark application.
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Amrusha is a versatile professional with over 12 years of experience in journalism, broadcast news production, and media consulting. Her impressive career includes collaborating extensively with prominent global enterprises. She garnered recognition for her exceptional work in producing acclaimed shows for Bloomberg, a renowned business news network. Notably, these shows have been incorporated into the esteemed curriculum of Harvard Business School. Amrusha's expertise also encompassed a 4-year tenure as a consultant at Omidyar Network, a leading global impact investing firm. In addition, she played a pivotal role in the launch and content strategy management of the startup Live History India.
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