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Why Marc Jacobs and Ohio State each fought to trademark the phrase ‘the’


The is likely one of the commonest phrases within the English language. But two separate entities need customers to affiliate them with the phrase.

Fashion designer Marc Jacobs and Ohio State University individually filed functions with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in 2019 to trademark “the,” which might enable them to emblazon it on merchandise like T-shirts and luggage—and prohibit anybody else from doing so. This week, the USPTO granted the college the trademark, and whereas it could appear ridiculous to attempt to trademark such a typical phrase, specialists say it’s really a intelligent little bit of branding.

In some methods, the whole idea of sticking “THE” on a shirt started as a joke. Back in 1986, Ohio State University needed to maneuver away from the acronym OSU as a result of it’s additionally utilized by Oregon State University and Oklahoma State University, which creates a variety of confusion. So the varsity tried to rebrand itself as The Ohio State University in a tongue-in-cheek approach, encouraging others to do the identical.

By the mid-’90s, athletes and alumni had been utilizing the article the when referring to Ohio State; NFL gamers used the time period in tv broadcasts; and Saturday Night Live parodied it. Over the previous few years, within the ultimate iteration of the joke, folks have simply used “THE” to discuss with the varsity, together with on T-shirts.

[Images: USPTO]

Meanwhile, one thing related was taking part in out within the vogue world. Apparel firm Marc Jacobs started utilizing the phrase The on varied merchandise, together with “The Tote Bag” and “The Backpack.” It was additionally designed to be a humorous type of branding, pairing a particular article with a generic product. Over time, some Marc Jacobs picture shoots had fashions carrying sweaters with “THE” on them.

“This is about two manufacturers experimenting with language to differentiate themselves,” says Alexandra J. Roberts, a professor on the University of New Hampshire School of Law who focuses on trademark legislation. “These approaches are tongue in cheek, irreverent, and humorous. They’re pondering slightly outdoors the field, making an attempt to broaden the set of issues folks affiliate with the model.”

In 2019, the Ohio State University and Marc Jacobs every needed to codify their relationship to the phrase. Marc Jacobs filed the applying with the USPTO to trademark “The,” and shortly thereafter Ohio State University did the identical. This week, the college was granted the trademark. But Roberts explains that the USPTO is especially involved with stopping shopper confusion, so it specifies that the college should use the phrase in such a approach that buyers perceive that it’s an official a part of the branding. In this case, it might imply placing “THE” on a shirt label or price ticket to make it clear that it’s greater than only a cute saying. “The complete level of the trademark is for folks to see the image or phrase and affiliate it with a single supply or model,” she says.

While it’s a giant win for Ohio State to obtain this trademark, ESPN factors out that it may not be the one college that may be capable to use “THE” on attire. For the primary 5 years {that a} trademark is registered, different events can petition to cancel it on the grounds that it doesn’t but operate as a trademark.

And Marc Jacobs, for its half, should still get a trademark for the phrase, Roberts says, because the software remains to be pending. Over the previous three years, the corporate and the college have chosen to not battle over the phrase however slightly to work with one another—and the USPTO—to allow them to every use it. The secret is for them to make use of the trademark in numerous sufficient ways in which the patron couldn’t confuse an Ohio State University product with a Marc Jacobs product.

“The two logos might coexist,” Roberts says, mentioning that there are a lot of manufacturers with the identical identify, like Yale University and Yale Locks. “But it might be a lot simpler to think about them coexisting if Marc Jacobs had the trademark for purses, and the college had the trademark for shirts and hats.”

Roberts says trademarking “THE” is an instance of intelligent branding that additionally creates new associations in customers’ minds. “By trademarking ‘THE,’ they’re making a spin-off model,” she says. “It implies that there are much more ways in which customers can relate to the model. By formalizing their safety of the phrase, no one else can do one thing related.”

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