“I wish the US president had opposed my trademark” – applicant of registered Trump mark on treating IP as art
- Author and motivational speaker attains Trump and Disney related mark
- Filed mark for art and to trigger opposions from well-known brands
- Attorney claims “trademarks are not an art-form"; says mark filed in bad faith
A popular author and professional speaker has successfully registered a trademark for the term GRABBA THE TRUMP in the UK, a combining of terms related to both US President Donald Trump and a character from the Star Wars universe. Talking to World Trademark Review, the applicant states that he hoped Trump would oppose the mark and that he enjoys provoking major brands with his trademark applications.
A trademark application for the term GRABBA THE TRUMP was filed at the UKIPO on March 6 2018 and entered the register last week. It was filed by Sheridan ‘Shed’ Simove, an author, TV producer, product designer and professional speaker who has a history of filing mischievous and satirical trademark applications. For example, Tinder opposed one of his applications last year for the term SHINDER (for a dating app wherein Simove was the sole male account); in 2013 his application for the term RAMPANT RABBI (for a sex toy in the shape of a Jewish cleric) was opposed by adult retailer Ann Summers; and Apple took legal action over Simove’s iNotePad stationery product. Arguably most outlandish of all, from a trademark perspective at least, is Simove’s registered UK trademark for the term THE TRADEMARK OFFICE HAS NO SENSE OF HUMOUR.
Talking to World Trademark Review, Simove explained that his latest mark is related to a Grabba the Trump product he has designed. “I have always wanted to make a range of figurines and launch a limited edition direct-debit offering where people who like my creativity can get a burst of it every quarter, half-year, or year,” he explained. “This is the first figurine in that range, and I wanted to do something that parodied Trump – he's just so ripe for parody; Obama you couldn't get anything out of, but with Trump there's plenty to work with. I thought the name was great too; I think the image of Trump as a space slug, as it were, with a concubine and how she's tied up is very poetic and is a visual metaphor for what I think is going on." This is not the first Trump parody product that Sheridan has created; his website also sells a ‘Make America Grate Again’ cheese-grater and a ‘Donald Thump’ punching bag.
Asked whether he thought the GRABBA THE TRUMP mark would reach registration, Simove confessed that he didn’t mind either way. As he explains, his strategy is often rooted in the trademark filing and not necessarily the registered rights: “I’ve learned over the years how to file a trademark application online for just £170, and not only does it protect your brand or product name, it can also put you on the radar of a big company so that their lawyers come after you – and then that creates a news story. This has been one of my strategies; I've had legal challenges from Apple, LucasFilm, Google, and I'm slowly ticking off the biggest companies in the world. Therefore, I wish the US president had opposed my trademark because it would be the highest accolade I could ever reach, really. In fact, the absolute best outcome would be Trump tweeting about the figurine and having the President of the United States taking legal action against me. On top of all the companies who've gone after me, to have a presidential block on one of my trademarks or products, you can't get much better than that."
As we mentioned previously, Simove’s antics – including those related to trademarks, product designs, and stunts – have been covered by the mainstream media for 20 years. Therefore, in some cases, a trademark application is sometimes ‘bait’ for a well-known brand to lodge an opposition – which can then lead to press coverage. “With my trademarks, I'm never passing off, I'm never trying to trick anyone – everyone knows that what I do is parody. So if a big company is so snotty that they want to punish me for something that's in the cultural ether – which must mean that the company has done something phenomenal – then the media loves a good ‘Goliath beating down a David’ story.”
Ultimately, though, Simove treats this latest application – and his filing activity generally – as an extension of his art, saying he means no harm and his enforcement of granted marks reflects that philosophy. “I treat others like I want to be treated myself and I try to be a decent human,” he says. “If someone else wants to sell a T-shirt with my joke on it, brilliant. But if someone completely rips me off and copies one of my creations exactly, then I would fight it and I would win because that's not right. I'd want them to come to me and strike up a deal, I'm always happy to do that. In fact, someone saw one of my products from years ago and they now pay me a royalty to sell their version of it."
Despite royalty deals for his products (and even one example of a leading TV company purchasing one of his trademarks after an unsuccessful opposition), Simove is aware his marks aren’t a big money-maker. “Much to my family's chagrin, I'm not the best businessman: my whole ethos is led not by how much money I can make, but from how excited I am about an idea and how entertaining it will be to others. I'm not a trademark prospector, I would never hold someone else’s trademark to ransom – really, I’m just an entertainer,” he concludes. “As to the Trump mark, at the moment I'm not sure whether I will sell the figurine and actually have Grabba The Trump be a commercial entity or leave it as another legacy of ‘my creativity’ and ‘my art’.”
The legal conundrum
World Trademark Review spoke with attorneys about the GRABBA THE TRUMP trademark reaching registration at the UKIPO. While many were sceptical that Disney (owner of the Star Wars brand) would have a strong opposition claim, most were surprised that the Trump Organisation (or Trump’s personal legal team) didn’t lodge an opposition.
In regards to Disney, Chris McLeod, partner at Elkington and Fife LLP, understands why the entertainment giant didn’t try and stop the application, saying: “I think that the similarity between this mark and JABBA THE HUTT is too low for Disney to object to the application or use of the mark unless, perhaps, they were to oppose on the basis of bad faith.” Concurring with that view is Michael Downing, a trademark attorney at Downing IP, who says it is “no surprise” that Disney didn’t oppose the application, adding: “Any opponent would have to show that they owned an earlier similar mark. So while GRABBA THE TRUMP is certainly reminiscent of Jabba, I’d be sceptical as to whether it is similar enough given the rather different concept that it brings to mind. However, if I were the applicant, I’d be more worried about a copyright or design claim based on the figurine.”
As to the clear link to the US president, McLeod says he is “surprised that the Trump Organisation did not oppose” because “the mark is clearly derogatory.” Downing was equally surprised, especially as Trump has shown in the past he isn’t always a fan of jokes at his expense. "The Trump Organisation would need to show that its earlier marks extended as far as figurines, which might be difficult. However, Donald Trump himself is probably well-known enough to claim that his brand is famous, but the test is whether people might look at the trademark and think it denotes a business owned by Mr Trump. It is fairly obviously a parody, and Trump isn’t exactly known for self-deprecation. The applicant might be on the receiving end of some unkind tweets, though?”
Of course, any angry Twitter recourse from Trump (or even his followers) about the figurine would be welcomed by Simove. The wider issue, then, is how brands can best handle such trademarks. We’ve written before about figures who file provocative trademark applications or buy domain names with the hope of legal challenges. In 2016, we wrote about self-proclaimed millionaire Mike Lin, who received a cease-and-desist from Beyoncé after applying for a NASTY WOMAN trademark. Talking to us, he called himself “the Banksy of trademarks” and was happy to receive the letter from the pop star’s legal representative. Then there was parody artist Paul Horner, who passed away last year, who told us in 2015 about setting up fake news websites using the name of major media brands. “If lawyers do a Google search for my name, they would see that the scare tactic is not the way to go, and realise I’m a guy that will mess with them if they try and play hard-ball,” Horner remarked.
Researching an applicant name before lodging an opposition or sending a cease-and-desist is, of course, good practice. But provocative and satirical trademarks can be a tricky hurdle for major brands. In fact, for some attorneys, it can be frustrating. “Trademarks are not an art-form, they are for businesses who are intending to use the mark to distinguish their goods from the goods of others,” Downing said when asked about Simove’s Trump-related mark. “If he doesn’t have a bona fide intention to use the mark in this way, then it’s not a valid application. That way, it would avoid having to say on the record that people would be confused into thinking that was a genuine piece of Trump or Disney merchandise, and the opposition would be about him misusing the trademarks system instead of framing some sort of ‘David versus Goliath’ battle. Indeed, Goliath wouldn’t need to file the opposition personally, as anyone can assert bad faith…”
For now, though, Simove will be waiting to see if there’s any legal recourse from his Trump trademark. For practitioners representing major brands, the key lesson is to be mindful of who you are launching legal action against – because in some cases, that's exactly what they want you to do.