Trying to trademark a meme? OK Boomer

Derrick Bryson Taylor, The New York Times

Posted at Nov 20 2019 08:19 AM | Updated as of Nov 20 2019 04:03 PM

Trying to trademark a meme? OK Boomer 1
A photo provided by Shannon O’Connor shows the OK BOOMER hoodie that she designed. “Ok boomer” has become Generation Z’s endlessly repeated retort to the problem of older people who just don’t get it, becoming a rallying cry for millions of fed up kids in response to cringey YouTube videos, Donald Trump tweets, and the issues that matter to them. Shannon O'Connor, The New York Times

First came the “OK Boomer” memes on social media. Then came the T-shirts, phone cases and other merchandise emblazoned with the viral retort. Now, get ready for an all-out war at the US Patent and Trademark Office and a possible television series using the phrase.

On Nov. 11, Fox Media filed a trademark application for a TV show called “OK Boomer,” one among a handful of applicants hoping to secure rights to the phrase hurled by Generation Z and millennials to older people who don’t understand their positions on various issues and anyone issuing condescending remarks. (This month, Chloe Swarbrick, a 25-year-old New Zealand lawmaker, even used it in Parliament to respond to a heckler during a debate on a zero carbon bill.)

At least 5 current trademark applications are pending for the phrase, according to the federal office’s online database. Fox Media said in its application that it wanted to use it for an “ongoing television series featuring reality competition, comedy, and game shows.” A spokeswoman for Fox Media, Alex Gillespie, said Tuesday that the company had no comment about the filing. A spokeswoman for the federal patent office, Julianne Metzger, said Tuesday that the office “does not comment on trademark applications.”

Separate applications filed Oct. 31 (by a man named Kevin Yen) and Nov. 14 (by jewelry company Rust Belt Creations Co.) want to use the phrase on clothing items. Another application, filed Nov. 12 (also by Rust Belt Creations) plans to sell decals and stickers. And an application filed Wednesday (by William Grundfest, a television show producer known for “Mad About You”) plans to use “OK Boomer” for live stage performances and lectures.

The other applicants did not immediately respond to requests for comment Tuesday.

In light of the phrase’s popularity, it’s not likely that any of the applications will be approved, said Josh Gerben, a trademark lawyer and founder of Gerben Law Firm, who noticed the filing by Fox Media on Monday.

“I think they are all very likely to meet the same fate, which is the USPTO will issue what is called a widely used message refusal,” Gerben said in an interview Tuesday, adding that the definition of a trademark “has to identify a single company or individual as a source of a product or service.”

Once something like a meme goes viral and is widely used by people, it cannot legally function as a trademark, he said.

It will typically take the office around four months to deliver a decision on the applications, Gerben said, but a pending application should not stop a company from beginning work.

“There is no requirement under US law to own a trademark registration to make a product under a name,” he said.

It’s unlikely that merchandise sellers will have any issues selling “OK Boomer” gear, he said, but none of them will be able to stop the sale of competing products.

Attempts to trademark popular cultural phrases are not new.

Earlier this year, Cardi B filed an application to trademark the catchphrase “Okurrr” to use on clothing and paper goods. It was denied over the summer, according to CNN.

LeBron James met the same fate when he tried to trademark “Taco Tuesday.” In its rejection in September, the office said the phrase was “a commonplace term, message or expression” that is widely used.

While Gerben said he expected to see other applications to trademark “OK Boomer,” he noted that viral memes are short-lived.

People filing trademarks are typically hoping to hit a gold mine, he said.

“People are only going to want their ‘OK Boomer’ shirts in likelihood for a little while,” he said.

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