It happened. “The” is a registered trademark now. The USPTO issued a registration certificate for the word “The” to Ohio State University (Sorry; the Ohio State University) on June 21, 2022. How did this happen, and what does it mean?
The The Saga
The legal quest to own “the” began on May 6, 2019, when Marc Jacobs Trademarks, LLC (MJT) filed an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) to register the word as a trademark for use on clothing, bags and similar merchandise. MJT claimed a first use date of December 3, 2018.
On August 8, 2019, the Ohio State University filed its own application to register the word as a trademark for use on clothing. The university claimed first use in commerce at least as early as August, 2005.
Due to the earlier filed MJT application, the examining attorney issued an office action to the Ohio State University. It referenced the earlier filed MJT application as a potential bar to registration of the Ohio State University claim. The application was suspended pending the outcome of MJT’s “the” application.
MJT’s application was published for opposition on October 27, 2020. The Ohio State University filed an opposition. The Ohio State University alleged that;
[MJT’s THE mark] “so resembles Ohio State’s THE mark as to be likely, when used on or in connection with the applied-for goods, to cause confusion, or to cause mistake, or to deceive as to the affiliation, connection or association of MJT with Ohio State, or as to the origin, sponsorship or approval of the applied-for goods or commercial activities by Ohio State, all in violation of § 2(d) of the Trademark Act….”Opposition of The Ohio State University in re: TM Application No. 88416806
It appears that the parties have reached a cooperative use agreement of some kind. The opposition has been withdrawn and the opposition proceeding has been terminated.
Ornamentation vs. The Registered Trademark
Both companies have faced objections from examining attorneys that their uses of the word “the” on clothing were ornamental. A decorative use of a word, symbol, design, etc. that does not function as an identifier of the source of a particular product or service is not sufficient to satisfy the “use in commerce” requirement for trademark registration.
After the USPTO rejected the MJT application in March, 2020, MJT filed a successful request for reconsideration. That led to the publication for opposition to which the Ohio State University responded. The USPTO issued a Notice of Allowance on October, 2021. The MJT application is still pending in the USPTO.
The Ohio State University initially encountered the same kind of resistance from the USPTO. The university remedied the problem, however, by showing that it wasn’t just using the word ornamentally; it was also putting it where trademarks usually go, such as inside the shirt at the back of the neck and on its website.
That satisfied the examiner. The mark was published for opposition, and on June 21, 2022 a registration certificate issued.
Scope of The Registered Trademark
Does this mean nobody can use the word “the” in a trademark anymore? No.
To begin with, the Ohio State University has only registered it in Class 25. Class 25 consists of sports and collegiate athletics clothing.
The ultimate question, in all cases, is whether another company’s use of the word would be likely to confuse consumers as to the origin of a product or service. The Tax Curative Institute should have very little to fear from the Ohio State University’s registration of “the” as a trademark for collegiate and athletic clothing.
What about displaying the word on clothing, though? Does the Ohio State University’s ownership of the “the” trademark for clothing mean that no one can display the word “the” on a T-shirt now?
Not necessarily. Purely ornamental uses of the word should not expose a T-shirt seller to a risk of infringement liability. For example, a company selling T-shirts emblazoned with the band name “The Slants” should not have to worry about being sued by the Ohio State University.
Of course, unless they have a license from The Slants, they might encounter some pushback for using the band’s name. That’s because the band owns a trademark in their name (“Slants”). Merely using the word “the,” however, should not be a problem. Consumers are not likely to think that every shirt they come across originates from The Slants merely because it has the word “the” on it.
Get in touch with The Cokato Copyright Attorney.