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Nothing seems to raise Americans’ hackles � or at least prompt our mirthful derision � so much as trademark lawyers staking exclusive claims to everyday verbiage. The latest show, of course, was staged by the minions of megamedia mogul Rupert Murdoch, harumphing over comedian Al Franken’s use of “fair and balanced” in his latest book. Murdoch, whose News Corporation Limited owns cable channel FOX News Network, LLC, dropped his suit after a judicial spanking. Public attention turned elsewhere, but we were left to ponder: Are there no limits to the linguistic turf lawyers will try to claim? A brief review led us to a definitive answer: no. Some companies will risk looking arrogant, frivolous, bullying, or simply insane � all to defend their ownership of scraps of the English language. Let’s look back to 1994. That was the year McDonald’s Corporation ill-advisedly took on a 9-year-old over ownership of the words “nothing but net” because an expensive Mickey D’s commercial ended with that very same tag line. The Happy Meal purveyor eventually settled with the fourth-grader. Fast-forward to 2002, when the International Olympic Committee defended its ancient and exclusive rights to the word “Olympic.” The IOC halted sales of Wasatch Brewery’s Unofficial Beer of the 2002 Olympics. (The Salt Lake City�based company rebounded from the lawsuit by bringing out a Mormon Church�offending brew called Polygamy Porter, with the pithy slogan: “Why stop at one?”) Even the freewheeling Australian Olympic Committee can get uptight. It tried to quash a nudie calendar produced by the nation’s women’s soccer team as a fund-raiser. It wasn’t the skin that offended the committee; it was the unauthorized use of the word “Olympic.” Dionysius, that original Olympian, would be so disappointed. But these early examples pale beside the legalistic foaming-at-the-mouth now transpiring in some corporate law departments. Nextel Communications recently claimed exclusive rights to the words “Push to talk” (apparently never having heard of intercoms). Nextel claims it needs the phrase to describe its Direct Connect service. Verizon, ostensibly taking the side of common sense, asserts that Nextel’s trademark is invalid because “Push to talk” is far too common a phrase to trademark. Maybe that’s why Verizon had no qualms about employing the words for its rival walkie-talkie service. And it doesn’t stop with words. New York’s 21 Club has staked a claim to its distinguishing numeral. Earlier this year, the swanky restaurant went after a New York nightclub known as Ocean’s 21. Upon further reflection, the latter decided that “Ocean’s NY” would suffice. And “21″ isn’t the only number that’s been pressed into servitude. Abercrombie & Fitch Co., owner of Hollister stores, sued American Eagle Outfitters in August for its use of “22″. Hollister claims the number has graced its T-shirts since the company’s inception. American Eagle says the suit is frivolous since Hollister has put a variety of numbers on its clothing and cannot claim them all. The rampant word-claiming has not been entirely one-sided. Striking a blow for the little guy � er, noncorporate entity � movie director Spike Lee sued Viacom International Inc. in June to stop the launch of Spike TV. He claimed its “unapologetically male” programming would hurt his public image. Lee, who has yet to issue an apology for his gender, settled with Viacom in September. Maybe Murdoch et al. should take a page from the inventors of “catsup” � go ahead and use those critical words � but change their spellings just enough to make them indisputably your own. Who could argue with “fayre and balansed” coverage, Spyke TV, or Twenny Wun?
Catherine Aman is staff editor at Corporate Counsel; Nicholas Noyes is a freelance writer based in New York.

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