Is it a good thing that ‘Boston Strong’ can’t be trademarked?

April 18, 2014

Boston StrongAround the one-year anniversary of the Boston Marathon bombing, you probably saw a multitude of products bearing the words “Boston Strong.” Despite what you might think, this is a slogan, but not a trademarked one.

“Boston Strong is a message, it’s an attitude and it doesn’t speak to who made the items, so no one really owns it,” Boston trademark attorney Susan Mulholland told ESPN Boston. That’s because phrases borne of everyday speech or news events generally can’t be trademarked. They’re considered commonplace, so since they’re something used by everyone, no one party can own or control them.

That doesn’t mean people didn’t try, however.

At least nine parties have tried to trademark the phrase “Boston Strong” ever since it was coined by two Emerson College students, who used in on t-shirts that they sold to raise money for victims of the bombing.

The Boston Marathon bombings were a trying and emotional time for many, and the phrase “Boston Strong” is strongly linked to that tragedy, so let’s briefly examine the ethics of seeking (and being denied) a trademark for this phrase.

On the one hand, the inability of “Boston Strong” to be trademarked could be a good thing. It can’t be trademarked because it’s perceived as belonging to everyone. For some, the idea that a big company like Sam Adams maker Boston Beer (which did apply for a trademark) could “own” the phrase doesn’t pass the smell test.

Then again, since this phrase isn’t trademarked, no one controls it. That means anyone could make up a bunch of “Boston Strong” t-shirts, say they’re being sold of charity and then walk away with the proceeds. Now, that could just as easily happen with a trademark, of course, but if an organization were able to trademark “Boston Strong” for charitable purposes and that trademark were violated, there at least would be a framework for consequences.

Ultimately, it’s hard to say that either approach is completely right and the other completely wrong. That’s just the nature of situations like this that are very infused with emotional power and ethical considerations. Based on what you’ve read here, which do you think is the right approach – allowing a trademark and providing a measure of control, or leaving it entirely in the public domain and sacrificing any supervision?