Who Owns English?

googleTMIn 1989 the universally admired and reviled head coach of the Los Angeles Lakers, Pat Riley, trademarked the term “Three-Peat.” He cannot be faulted for his optimism, given that at the time his team had not won even a single title. The term refers to a team winning the championship three times in a row. It was constructed by shortening “three repeat.” It is a mildly clever invention, probably arising from the cliched question and answer that happens when a team wins its first championship:

Reporter: “Congratulations on a successful end to your 10-month long season! Do you think you’ll be able to repeat as champions next year?”

Coach or Player: “Repeat? We’re going to THREE-PEAT!”

The term failed to catch on, at least to Riley’s benefit, because his teams never managed to win three times in a row. It took Michael Jordan’s Chicago Bulls to do that years later. It was linguistically ironic that, although the Bulls had earned the right to trumpet their Three-Peat, they legally could not use that word to describe their achievement, at least not without asking permission from the coach they had had to defeat three times along the way.

Does Pat Riley actually own the word Three-Peat?

Everyone, lawyers included, seems to think so. From time to time I get a memo from the legal department reminding us of all the legal restrictions on the things we can and can’t write in our publications. The memo reminds us not to use photos or artwork without getting permission from the copyright owner. The same thing goes with swiping long articles off news web sites and publishing them as our own work. Not cool and not legal. Then the memo makes a big deal out of always using the trademark symbol (™) when using a word or phrase that is a registered trademark, whether it is one of our own trademarks (READ FOR FUN is my trademark, but it is not registered. Why not? I actually WANT people to read for fun.) or anybody else’s trademark. So if I wrote:

I googled the most popular drink to go with jello, and it said Coke or Pepsi.

the legal department would want me to change it to:

I used the Google™ brand search engine to ask what the most popular brand of soda would be to accompany Jello™ brand gelatin, and the answer the search engine provided (without actually implying any preference of its own, but simply giving a statistically relevant comparison based on the taste of non-compensated users of the search engine) was either Coke™ brand high-fructose sweetened cola beverage (a registered trademark of Coca Cola, Inc.) or Pepsi™ brand gargle solution (a registered trademark of the American Dental Association™ (a registered trademark of Smiles2Go).)

They might even want me to have a large number of footnotes at the bottom of the page disclaiming any rights to use those terms, even though we just did.

The legal department is reinforcing the generally accepted myth that people and companies own the rights to certain words just because they have registered them as a trademark. During the boring parts of football games at the sports bar, I have often heard a remark like, “Gosh, I ought to trademark the phrase ‘Green Bay Really Cheeses Me Off!’ and every time somebody says it, they’d have to pay me a buck. I’d be a millionaire!”

This is a total myth. A trademark is not a government deed to a particular word or phrase. The trademark holder does not own that word and can’t stop anybody from using it. All the trademark means is that the trademark holder can use that word or phrase exclusively in the conduct of their business.

Xerox is the only company allowed to make and sell Xerox copiers. Only Kraft can sell gelatin mix under the name Jello.

But notice I did not put the little TM next to those words in the last paragraph. I don’t have to. I am not selling copiers or gelatin, I am offering an opinion in writing. Xerox and Jello are just words (and barely that), and words don’t belong to anybody.I can write about Lipton tea and Goodyear tires or Dell computers without even mentioning that they are registered trademarks. It is not my job to protect somebody else’s trademark. Sure, trademark holders are worried that if their trademark gets thrown around too much and becomes just a regular word, like Scotch tape or aspirin (former trademarks that lost their registration by becoming adopted into common usage). Trademark holders are the ones demanding everybody put the trademark symbol on everything. Big companies do it as a form of unwritten courtesy. (You protect my trademark and I’ll protect yours.) Newspapers and magazines (the guys who write the style guides most often cited as the authority for English usage) always respect trademarks, because trademark owners are either current or future advertisers. From my days in the newspaper business, I recall the motto “The advertiser is always right.”

My Fellow Writers, do not be intimidated by the little TM. English belongs to everybody.In your novels go ahead and let your characters eat Kellogg’s Frosted Flakes for breakfast. They can even shout, “They’re Gr-r-eat!” even though that catch phrase is a registered trademark, too. In your poems compare the curvature of your true love’s back bumper to that of a Cadillac Escalade. In your railroad bridge graffiti extol the excellent reception of your Verizon iPhone. You may someday receive a stern letter from the lawyers charged with protecting these trademarks, urging you in a very threatening way to properly annotate their trademarks in your future publications. They are required to ask you, by law, but, by law, you don’t have to do anything! Besides the thrill of sticking it to large corporations, you will have the knowledge that, at last, somebody read your work.

Just do not copy or reproduce the contents of this READ FOR FUN blog without express written permission from me or possibly Major League Baseball.