Personal Names of the Deceased as Trademarks

Central Florida has been in the national news for more than Mickey Mouse and Dwight Howard recently.  The Casey Anthony trial riveted the nation and brought scores of news crews to Orlando.  From Nancy Grace to Geraldo Rivera, there was no escaping the “tot mom” and her “Bella Vita” tattoo.  Tragically, Central Florida was in the news for all the wrong reasons.

That trend continues.  As with the homicide of Caylee Anthony, the death of a child has once again brought national attention to Central Florida.  Trayvon Martin was shot dead while walking to his house after buying some ice tea and Skittles candy at the nearby convenience store.  The killer, George Zimmerman has claimed self-defense.  Zimmerman is (or was) involved in the Neighborhood Watch program, and he is reported to have a history of calling 911 to report “suspicious” incidents. One reason that this case has brought so much attention is because the local police did not arrest Zimmerman after the shooting.  The police indicated that they had no probable cause to dispute Zimmerman’s statements that he shot Trayvon in self-defense.

But this post is not about the guilt or innocence of either of these accused murderers.  One had her day in court, and the other should get the same “opportunity.”

This post is about the families of the deceased filing trademark applications.  It’s a sad thought.  Rather than Caylee Anthony or Trayvon Martin becoming business owners themselves, needy for trademark protection, their families have filed trademark applications after their deaths.

For Caylee, the trademark applications were filed by her grandparents’ attorney.  In fact, the applications claim that the trademarks are owned by the attorney.  The applications are for “CAYLEE ANTHONY” and “JUSTICE FOR CAYLEE.”  The goods that are listed in the applications include t-shirts, underwear, and buttons.  The applications were filed as “intent-to-use” applications, which means that the applicant had to declare that he intended to use the trademarks in a bona fide offering of the goods.

When news of this got out, many people accused the Anthonys of “cashing in” on the death of Caylee.  While this was most likely a knee-jerk reaction – surely the Anthonys wouldn’t be trying to profit from the death of their granddaughter – there is some legal merit to the charge of cashing in.  This is because trademark law is a creature of the Commerce Clause in the United States Constitution.  The Commerce Clause enables Congress to regulate interstate commerce.  As such, federal trademark registration is only available to those who seek to use a trademark for interstate commercial purposes.

However, as explained in the previous link, the Anthonys filed these trademark applications in order to prevent others from cashing in.  In that respect, they were “defensive” trademark applications.  The fact that a federal trademark applicant must declare that they either are using or intend to use the mark in interstate commerce makes this practice of “defensive” trademark applications a very interesting topic, but it is beyond the scope of this post.

This post is focused on the fact that the Caylee Anthony trademark applications, and the ones described below, both involve personal names.  I have blogged about this issue before.  In order to register a personal name as a trademark, the applicant must disclose whether or not the trademark refers to a living individual.  If so, the applicant must state whether or not the individual has provided consent to use his or her name in the application.

The Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (“TMEP”) explains:

If a mark comprises the name or likeness of a living individual and consent to register is of record, a statement to that effect must be printed in the Official Gazette and on the registration certificate.

Similarly, if the trademark is a name but does not depict a living individual, a statement to that effect must be made:

If a name or likeness that could reasonably be perceived as that of a living individual is not that of a specific living individual, a statement to that effect must be printed in the Official Gazette and on the registration certificate. The statement should read as follows:

“__________ does not identify a living individual.”

The applicant should explain any additional relevant circumstances. For example, if the matter identifies a certain character in literature or a deceased historical person, then a statement of these facts in the record may be helpful, but this information will not be printed in the Official Gazette or on the registration certificate.

Unfortunately, the attorney who filed the Caylee Anthony applications did not make the appropriate statements concerning the life or death of the person referenced in the applications, Caylee Anthony.  The Examining Attorney from the USPTO therefore issued an “Office Action” which required that the applicant fix the error:

 The applied-for mark includes a name that may identify a particular famous or historical individual who is deceased.  Specifically, the mark includes the name “CAYLEE.”  Where a name, portrait or signature in a mark identifies a particular living individual, the mark can be registered only with the written consent of that individual.  Trademark Act Section 2(c), 15 U.S.C. §1052(c); TMEP §813; see TMEP §§1206 et seq.  In this situation, where it is unclear whether the name, portrait or signature is that of a living individual, applicant must so clarify for the record.  See TMEP §§813.01(b), 1206.03, 1206.05.

Accordingly, if the individual identified in the mark is in fact deceased, applicant should provide the following statement: 

The name, portrait, or signature shown in the mark does not identify a living individual.

See TMEP §§813.01(b), 1206.03, 1206.05.

If the name or signature in the mark does identify a particular living individual, then applicant must submit the following:

(1)  A statement that the name “CAYLEE” identifies a living individual whose consent is of record.  If the name represents that of a pseudonym, stage name, or nickname, applicant must include a statement that {specify fictitious or assumed name} identifies the {indicate pseudonym/stage name/nickname} of {specify actual name}, a living individual whose consent is of record; and

(2)  A written consent, personally signed by the individual whose name or signature appears in the mark, authorizing applicant to register the name, pseudonym, stage name, nickname, or signature as a trademark and/or service mark with the USPTO (e.g., “I consent to the use and registration by Lippman Law Offices, P.A. of my name “CAYLEE” as a trademark and/or service mark with the USPTO”).

TMEP §§813, 813.01(a), 1206.04(a); see 37 C.F.R. §2.61(b).

See Office Action, HERE.  That was no doubt a sad piece of mail for the Anthonys’ attorney to open.  These applications were filed well after Caylee’s remains were found, and it’s unfortunate that the appropriate statements concerning the life or death of the person depicted in the trademarks weren’t made in the application.  Interestingly, the 6-month period in which to file a reply to the Office Action has passed, so the Examining Attorney should be marking the applications as “abandoned” in the near future.  It is not a stretch to think that these applications were simply filed to give the Anthonys’ attorney a federal application number to use in cease and desist letters which were no doubt sent to the people who truly were seeking to cash in on the Casey Anthony trial.  With the heated emotions dying down, and opportunists turning to a fresher news cycle, there may simply be no need for the CAYLEE ANTHONY and JUSTICE FOR CAYLEE trademarks anymore.

Image originally found on Used for educational and commentary purposes.

This brings us to today’s news about Trayvon Martin.  His mother, Sybrina Fulton, has filed two trademark applications using her son’s name.  The applications are for JUSTICE FOR TRAYVON and I AM TRAYVON.  As with the Caylee Anthony applications, these applications are intent-to-use applications, and the goods include DVDs, CDs, and other media. (This is also beyond the scope of this article, but as shown in the above picture and on the local news story I just saw, which included interviewing a man selling “Justice for Trayvon” t-shirts, there may actually be people that have already made a commercial use of the JUSTICE FOR TRAYVON and I AM TRAYVON trademarks.  If so, those people might have a superior common law claim to the trademark rights than Trayvon’s mother.)

Sadly, the attorney that filed the Trayvon Martin applications also failed to indicate whether or not “Trayvon” is a living or deceased individual.  (It also appears that Sybrina’s name was misspelled in the applications.)  The fact that such “living or dead” statement was not made means that 3 or 4 months from now, Trayvon’s mother’s attorney will be getting that same piece of mail requesting further information about the status of Trayvon Martin’s life.

As with the Caylee Anthony trademark applications, there has been a public backlash against this alleged attempt to “cash in.”  Comments in stories such as THIS one (“Nothing like cashing in. I bet Al Sharpton helped her fill out the paperwork”) and THIS one (“grieving all the way to the bank”), made by the oft-ignorant people hiding behind Internet screen-names, show a) a lack of class, and b) a lack of understanding that these applications may be “defensive” and designed to prevent others from doing the very thing that Trayvon’s mom is being accused of – cashing in on the death of her son.

While I have not seen any statements regarding the intent behind these trademark applications, it would not be the first time that the family member of a murder victim has filed trademark applications to stop others from profiting from the tragedy.  And, frankly, even Trayvon’s mother does want to offer DVDs and CDs under the JUSTICE FOR TRAYVON and I AM TRAYVON trademarks, why does that erase any sympathy and support for a mother grieving the murder of her son?

I’ll keep an eye on these applications and post a follow up when there’s something to report.

3 thoughts on “Personal Names of the Deceased as Trademarks

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