Protecting a trademark is important. If any old mobile phone company could start calling itself Apple or Samsung there would be confusion and problems. If I started selling my new artisanal cereal called “Captain Crunchy,” Kellogg’s would be justified in suing me into bankruptcy.
But trademark protection can extend from good business into pure shenanigans, often in ways that are tone-deaf and generally dumb.
Let’s start with Kellogg’s, who would have a really good claim against me in the hypothetical above, but when they sued a Mayan archaeology group because they had a toucan in their logo, not so much. Nobody is going to think, wait, is that Toucan Sam or an association of archaeologists? Are the archaeologists related to Froot Loops?
Kellogg’s argues quite stupidly that Toucan Sam is depicted in a setting with toucans. Which is, you know, a real place on earth, where people (like the Mayans!) have lived.
As the group’s spokesperson said:
This is a bit like the Washington Redskins claiming trademark infringement against the National Congress of American Indians.
For more cultural appropriation cluelessness, there’s Chicago-based Aloha Poke Company, a chain of poke restaurants that decided that nobody else should use Aloha in their restaurant name – they started sending cease and desist letters to Hawaiian businesses that were using Aloha or Aloha Poke in their names. What this really tells us is this: Aloha Poke is not a very clever name for your poke restaurant.
It is, however, a common and important Hawaiian word, and anybody who wants a Hawaiian feel to their name may choose to use it (unless you’re opening Aloha Poke Cafe next door to Aloha Poke Company in Chicago, I guess).
“Hi there, we’re copying your local food in a faraway place and now you can’t use your own native language! Is that a problem?”
Less culturally fraught, but still pretty dumb: Proctor & Gamble decided to file a trademark application for WTF. WTF?
All of which reminded me a book description I came across on Amazon recently for a young adult novel about a world where most words are owned by someone else and you have to pay to speak. Preposterous, right? Right?
(I haven’t read the book. If you have let me know how it is.)