It will come as a relief to their many fans to learn that Sarah Palin and Bristol Palin have filed applications at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to register their individual names as federal trademarks.
Since trademarks protect a “brand” as it is used in connection with particular goods and services, the Palins necessarily identified the commercial services that they intend to cover by those registrations.
Sarah describes her services as “Information about political issues … Educational and entertainment services, namely providing motivational speaking services in the field of politics, culture, business and values.”
Bristol takes a slightly different spin: “Educational and entertainment services, namely providing motivational speaking services in the field of life choices.”
Both of the applications stand preliminarily rejected because the Palins failed to meet some of the requirements for a federal trademark application, including failure to sign their applications.
The Palins’ outstanding rejections can probably be overcome, however, with the help of an experienced trademark counsel.
Why Apply to Register the Palin Names as Trademarks?
It is relatively uncommon for celebrities or politicians to register their names as trademarks, unless they are doing or planning significant merchandising in connection with their names.
For example, it does not appear that George Foreman pursued trademark registration for boxing or entertainment services, and that his later trademark applications were for clothing and cookware (e.g., the GEORGE FOREMAN GRILL) that were collateral to his famous boxing career.
Similarly, actress Suzanne Somers did not apply to register her brand in connection with the original source of her fame (acting services), but for jewelry and some sort of exercise contraption that was popular in the 1980s and ’90s.
It is true that political candidates have lent their names to trademarks used on promotional items (such as the trademark GEORGE W. BUSH FOR PRESIDENT for golf balls, bottled water, mouse pads and similar goods).
However, aside from those sorts of merchandising, many celebrities and politicians are content to rely on enforcement of their rights of publicity, which arise without the need for a federal trademark registration.
Between Sarah’s eponymous television series and six-figure speaking engagements, and Bristol’s stint on “Dancing With the Stars,” the PALIN brand is clearly expanding, and trademark protection for the merchandising to come may not be a bad idea.
It may be that the Palins are simply trying to stake their place on the U.S. Trademark Register, with a merchandising plan of their own. Of course, they can’t force longstanding registrants to give up their existing rights (PALIN was long ago registered as a trademark by one entity for “water purification systems primarily comprising sludge consolidators,” and an application for PALIN is pending by another party in connection with wines).
But who knows if a Bristol Palin series of motivational tapes, or a rifle-toting Sarah Palin doll or collectibles series or exercise machine is around the next corner. Would the Palins be shooting too high? Only time will tell.
Political Messages, Perfumes or Parodies?
Maybe — just maybe — the Palins’ move in seeking government protection for the PALIN brand is to discourage others from trying to register PALIN. After all, the U.S. trademark register reflects that others have tried to register “Sarah Palin’s Going Rogue Rouge” for wine, and “Palin Pink” for cosmetics and lip-primer. The Palins might be able to stop those sorts of uses, although it isn’t clear that having federal trademark registrations for “motivational speaking” would help them in doing so.
Whether or not the Palins are successful in their bids for federal trademark registration, the U.S. trademark laws will not prevent others from using the names Sarah Palin and Bristol Palin in public commentary, critique, news reporting, parody and other functions that have long been protected by the First Amendment.
Indeed, it is doubtful that the Palins can stop the pending trademark application for “Democrats for Palin/Bachmann in 2012,” as well as now-abandoned applications for “Pro-Choice and Pro-Palin” or “Puck You Palin.”
Perhaps what is most interesting about Sarah Palin’s move from politics to profit, and then on to the intermingled position of politics plus profits, revolves around how she will define her core services. So far, she has spent time and money to try to register her brand for providing information about politics and motivational speaking.
From a trademark lawyer’s standpoint, this is no ordinary brand-building exercise, and there will be unusual challenges in trying to enforce the Palin brand against uses that touch the political arena.
Then again, the self-described maverick Sarah Palin is no ordinary person.
Robert W. Zelnick is a partner in the Washington, D.C., office of McDermott Will & Emery, where he co-leads the firm’s global trademark practice group.