Who could ever see the Golden Arches and not think of McDonald’s, or hear the theme music to Entertainment Tonight and mistake it for any other program’s? No one can—these images and sounds have become so closely associated with their particular brands that they’re an indelible part of the companies’ identities.
Corporations and people try to legally protect the things that make them special, to prevent others from cashing in on their image. Just try giving your new product the tagline “Just do it,” and witness firsthand how seriously a company takes its brand and how viciously it will fight to preserve its integrity.
Ideas and products are protected by legal patents, while books, music, and films are protected by copyright laws. But trademarks are different—they can be anything that identifies a product as unique, whether it’s a logo, a slogan, or even a simple sound that’s come to connote the product in consumers’ minds. In a quest to protect valuable marketing opportunities, some celebrities and companies have tried—with varying degrees of success—to trademark some very odd sounds and slogans.
Donald Trump Trumps Common Sense
Remember when Donald Trump was just a desiccated ’80s relic with a bad head of hair? Then The Apprentice happened, and he was everywhere you looked, spewing his catchphrase, “You’re fired.” It may have been the hot phrase of the moment, but it’s nothing the average American boss or worker doesn’t utter or hear at least a few times in his or her lifetime. In March 2004, based on the success of his show, Trump filed paperwork with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to officially register “You’re fired” as his personal catchphrase. In September, it was denied; the USPTO claimed that it was too similar to other trademarked property. Also, it was ridiculous. If Trump had succeeded, HR professionals wouldn’t be paying royalties to Trump every time they gave an employee the boot, but Trump would have been allowed to license the phrase for merchandising purposes, and other companies and businesses would have been forbidden to use it.
Paris Hilton’s Catchphrase Is Hot
In 2007, the USPTO granted Paris Hilton three trademarks for the phrase “That’s hot,” which she had popularized on her show The Simple Life. When Hallmark came out with a parody greeting card featuring Hilton and the phrase, courts even ruled that the celebutante could sue the greeting-card manufacturer, on the grounds that Hallmark had infringed on her intellectual property.
Fist-Pumping Toward Greatness
The cast members of MTV’s Jersey Shore are rightly making hay while the sun shines by signing on to every conceivable moneymaking opportunity; one way they’re doing that is by attempting to trademark their distinctive nicknames. Snooki, The Situation, DJ Pauly D, and J-WOWW have all applied for trademark protection for their nicknames, but they haven’t been entirely successful. “Snooki” was judged too similar to the name of the cartoon cat “Snooky,” “The Situation” is too close to the name of a line of footwear, and there’s already a “DJ Paulie D” out there in guido-land. The Hollywood Reporter reports that those three may be granted limited rights to use their names in conjunction with their entertainment-related ventures, but “J-WOWW” is different enough from anything previously trademarked that the star formerly known as Jenni Farley will likely get unlimited use of her moniker.
Let’s Get Ready to … Make Money!
In the 1980s, boxing announcer Michael Buffer became known for his unique delivery of the phrase “Let’s get ready to rumble!” It became so closely identified with him, in fact, that he took it upon himself to trademark it and has reaped the rewards ever since. He’s done ads in the back of New York City taxis, parodied his phrase in commercials, in movies, and in video games, and used those words in many other ways, all of which have made him a very rich man. In 2009, Good Morning America reported that the phrase had made Buffer an estimated $400 million over the years.
Nothing Sounds Like a Harley
Motorcycle enthusiasts know that Harley-Davidson cycles are famous for the distinctive sound their engines make—a low, uneven rumble that’s music to a hog lover’s ears. In 1994, Harley-Davidson attempted to trademark that engine-idling noise, much to the dismay of its competitors. While Harley argued that it wasn’t trying to prevent its competitors from making bikes like its own—only bikes that sounded like Harleys—manufacturers like Yamaha, Suzuki, and Honda countered that since each company’s motorcycles contained basically the same engines, they all produced basically the same sound, and therefore the “Harley sound” shouldn’t be protected. In 2000, Harley had had enough litigation and withdrew its request.
Strange Success Stories
The USPTO doesn’t grant every trademark request, but all of these familiar sound bytes made the cut, so using them out of their protected context could land you in hot legal water.
- The infamous two-note T-Mobile ringtone
- The bell at the New York Stock Exchange
- “D’oh!” said by Homer Simpson
- The ominous “boing-boing” noises used on Law and Order
- The Pillsbury Doughboy’s unique “hee-hee” laugh
- The Intel jingle: “bah-bum-bum-bum!”
- The roar of the MGM lion
- The “N-B-C” jingle
The copyright police don’t come calling if you whistle a few notes of a jingle, but they will step in before anyone can use protected material for profit. Public figures and companies may seem overzealous when it comes to protecting what they consider to be their image, but many have learned the hard way that it’s far better to trademark yourself—before someone else does.