Call me a pessimist, but it was surprising to me when I recently checked the USPTO trademark database that I did not find an application to register “Social Distancing” for some other novelty item. (It is also surprising that the tag #socialdistancing has only 159,000 uses on Instagram.) Nevertheless, I am sure some entrepreneurs will use it on a t-shirt or coffee mug, file a trademark application for “Social Distancing” and then try to prohibit others from using the term. Chances are, however, that this entrepreneur will not be successful.
The trademark examiner assigned to an application to register SOCIAL DISTANCING will likely refuse registration because it fails to function as a trademark because it merely conveys an informational message. Where a term is merely informational, the context of its use in the marketplace would cause consumers to perceive the term as merely conveying an informational message, and not a means to identify and distinguish goods/services from those of others.
A “trademark” is a word, name, symbol, or device, or any combination thereof used by a manufacturer or merchant to identify their goods and distinguish them from goods manufactured or sold by others, and to indicate the source of manufacturer’s or merchant’s goods. Determining whether a term or slogan functions as a trademark depends on how it would be perceived by the relevant public.
Under trademark law, “widely used messages” fail to function as a trademark. A “widely used message would include slogans, terms, and phrases used by various parties to convey ordinary or familiar concepts or sentiments, as well as social, political, religious, or similar informational messages that are in common use or are otherwise generally understood. The more a term or phrase is commonly used in everyday speech, the less likely consumers will perceive the term as a trademark.
Some examples of proposed marks that have been denied registration on the grounds of being merely information or a widely used message are: ITS TACO TUESDAY for clothing, I LOVE YOU for jewelry, BLACK LIVES MATTER for a wide variety of goods and services, THINK GREEN for products advertised to be recyclable and to promote energy conservation, and DRIVE SAFELY for automobiles.
The trademark examiner would contend that the proposed mark, SOCIAL DISTANCING, merely conveys an expression of support for the ideas embodied in the message, that maintaining a certain distance between individuals is a measure people can take to slow the rapid spread of the coronavirus, as opposed to rather than an indicator of a single source of goods or services. In support of the refusal to register, the trademark examiner would introduce evidence from the CDC and other sources discussing the benefits of social distancing in slowing down the spread of coronavirus.
So feel free to use #socialdistancing on your favorite social media platform to highlight your contribution as a thoughtful and considerate member of society as we deal with these most interesting times.