Valuable Heroism

Trademark ad absurdum

Can you trademark a common phrase such as let's roll? The Todd M. Beamer Foundation has been attempting to do just that, so as to prevent anyone from exploiting the words commercially without its approval.

Beamer was aboard United Airlines Flight 93, which crashed in Pennsylvania on September 11 following an attempt by passengers to wrest control of the flight from hijackers. He had been on the phone with an air phone operator who heard him say "Let's roll!" as he and others prepared to act. The Beamer family later publicized the passengers' courageous behavior, and Beamer's words soon became a catch phrase symbolizing the nation's resolve. Rocker Neil Young even released a commemorative song titled "Let's Roll."

On September 26 the Todd M. Beamer Foundation sought trademark protection for the phrase from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Doug MacMillan, the foundation's executive director, told the Associated Press that any money from the commercial use of the words should benefit the families of those killed in the attacks. The foundation, he said, would market T-shirts and hats featuring the words and donate the profits to victims' families.

"We think it's horrible for people to want to profit off the events of Sept. 11," MacMillan told the A.P. "If there's anybody who should be benefiting, it should be the victims."

By the time the foundation acted, however, people were already marketing products featuring Beamer's words. Indeed, some of them had already sought trademark protection for themselves. At least two people filed trademark applications days before the foundation and were defending their own right to exploit the phrase. A contractor in Grosse Point, Michigan, told the press, "I don't care what your name is, it's first in, first swim." He added, "It's all about good old American capitalism."

The issue of trademarking common words and phrases has surfaced repeatedly as marketers have sought to protect expensive investments. One game company, for example, has actually trademarked the word Nazi. In perhaps the most notorious such case, Pepsi Cola in the early 1990s sought a trademark for the expression Uh-huh!, which the company was using in a Ray Charles campaign hawking Diet Pepsi. Unlike many such cases, however, the let's roll issue may actually be resolved in court.

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