For those of you who know my vita, it comes at no surprise that after university I was more than happy to leave everything related to a career in the legal system behind me. Well, as it happens occasionally in life, things from a previous life get back at you. To quote the great Al Pacino as Michael Corleone “Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in”. The story goes as follows.
Always thought that language was there for everyone and can be used freely?
Well, something rather weird is currently going on. People in different places, all independent from one another seem to have had almost the same idea: patenting signature phrases in different languages, or at least trying to get a patent. Well patent law, at least to me, can have its fascinating sides.
Let me tell you what just recently shook up the German-speaking world.
What you need to know is that besides standard or high German, there is a multitude of dialects spoken in Germany itself, but of course also in Austria, Switzerland, Luxembourg and other countries where German has the status of a minority language. Although everybody understands standard German, people often like to use their regional dialect and prefer certain words over standard German as everybody is used to these anyway.
The phrase “Griaß Di” (literal: Greet you) is widely used in Bavaria and Austria to greet somebody and thus replaces the usual “Guten Tag” (good day) or “Grüß dich”.
A German company patented the phrase for 900 € in Alicante, Spain which is (to that day at least) part of the European Union.
Of course, not the greeting itself is patented but the commercial use of it, for certain items like t-shirts amongst other.
Now, as Germans are always looking for business, maybe a reason that our export is still going strong, the German patent owner already sent a cease and desist order to an Austrian man who was selling t-shirts with the print on the Internet. Remember, it’s his own language. This, not surprisingly, is much to the dismay of not only our Austrian guy but the whole Austrian State that sees it as a form of humiliation from its bigger and not always loved northern neighbor.
Strangely, the phrase was patented in Spain not in Germany itself, but it is likely that the company had the intention to play a trick when we consider an older case in which somebody else has already tried to patent ‘Griaß Di’, but for the German market only. This case was rejected by the German patent office.
From a legal perspective, as both Germany and Spain are part of the EU as I said, the German company wouldn’t have been allowed to get the patent in Spain as a German court had previously ruled that the phrase couldn’t be patented. This ruling is binding and cannot be overruled by Spain under normal circumstances. Besides, the federal patent court ruled that no such common phrases as Ciao, Bonsoir or Hallo could be trademarked.
You might have also heard of the story that London gold medal winner and US swim-superstar Ryan Lochte filed with the US patent and trademark office to get the trademark for his (now?) signature ‘Jeah’ phrase. Obviously, we’re talking about the economics of signature language here as Lochte is planning to print his ‘Jeah’ on t-shirts, sunglasses and other merchandise and sell it through his website.
As a side note, this is an interesting new breed of athletes who think that they’re business -savvy enough to make some money on the side and don’t want to rely entirely on big brands anymore that hire them for their commercials.
A smart kid studying business at Fordham University is also trying to patent gymnast and gold medalist Gabby Douglas nickname ‘flying squirrel’. He filed while she was still competing in London. Now he either wants to sell her the name for considerably more than the $325 he invested or print it on merchandise. (Can’t believe that I reference to a Gawker story…)
What it come down to is that we see more and more people these days try to get trademarks for common phrases and common property. What do you think about it? Have you heard of the same or something similar in your own language.
I think the explanation can be found in something which is human to the core. We want to possess things and want to call them our own.