Self-proclaimed millionaire Mike Lin, who garnered a significant net worth thanks to being an early employee at LinkedIn, has a trove of politically charged trademark applications that have gathered much media attention. In an exclusive discussion, Lin compares himself to street artist Banksy and reveals that he has received oppositions (so far) from parties including Beyoncé Knowles, Kobe Bryant and Disney.
Lin first entered the public eye for his trademark activity in September following a series of famous domain and slogan-related filings (including PETS.COM, X.COM, 99 PROBLEMS and OH SNAP! CHAT). His profile picked up over the weekend following a short video posted on celebrity gossip website TMZ, in which he spoke about his trademark filing for NASTY WOMAN – filed a day after US presidential contender Donald Trump uttered it to rival Hillary Clinton at the final televised debate – and warned people not to create merchandise featuring the phrase. As the article notes: “Lin says he's spent thousands on trademarks over the years, and it's his right to defend them – just like brands [such as] Kleenex would.”
That expense claim is correct, Lin later confirmed to World Trademark Review, revealing that he has so far spent around $35,000 on trademark filings this year (on 71 marks). This spending spree was made possible thanks to his two-decade career in the Silicon Valley, which included being the 43rd employee at LinkedIn and multi-year stints at Yahoo! and Zynga. This led to a “current net worth of around $3 million”, he claims, as “the LinkedIn IPO made me a multi-millionaire”. But tough times followed; after being laid off by Zynga in 2013, he told us he became severely depressed and suffered some serious mental health issues due to an extended period of unemployment.
After a recovery period which included time with his family in Taiwan, he decided that he would start a new business and, inspired by ongoing societal and political events, created a clothing company called T-Shirts Matter. This led to the spate of trademark filings, a number of which are politically motivated (including the aforementioned NASTY WOMAN, as well as MAKE AMERIKKKA GREAT AGAIN, COPS SHOOT FIRST, STOP DMCA and FEAR THE HIJAB). Despite the often controversial subject matter, he is confident he will attain the registrations. “I have every intention of getting all my marks registered because my new T-Shirt company will be a force for social good – 11% of net profits will be going to my non-profit 'T-Shirts Matter Foundation', which will then donate to other non-profits and the arts,” he claims. “With 'Nasty Woman', 47% of net profits [from T-shirts using that phrase] will go to Planned Parenthood.”
Whether that will be enough to convince USPTO examiners remains to be seen, with a number of the marks likely to face opposition from brand owners. For example, a search of his applications (made under the applicant name ‘47 / 72 Inc’) reveals some that appear to be Disney-related (including HOUSE OF MOUSE, LET IT GO and TO INFINITY AND BEYOND). Other terms are the same as the team names featured in mobile game Pokémon Go (TEAM MYSTIC, TEAM INSTINCT and TEAM VALOUR). However, Lin stringently denies any of his marks are related to brands – going as far to deny any knowledge of them. “I claim no knowledge of popular culture,” he stated. “The trademarks are for baseball teams, and I've never heard of this ‘Pokémon’ that is being referenced, no clue. I am not going to be associated with false association or false assumption, and I disavow any knowledge of popular culture, especially around Pokémon or Disney."
His tactic to disavow knowledge of existing brands is one that won’t deter oppositions, and he confirmed that he has received cease-and-desists due to some of the marks – including from Beyoncé Knowles (for POISON IVY PARK) and Kobe Bryant (for THE BLACK MAMBA). But, for Lin, such opposition is seen as a potential coup. “Ultimately, I have north of $3 million dollars to play with,” he says. “So while I want to make sure that I don’t put myself in a place where I have a lot of really expensive legal fees, I know that spending $375 for a trademark is worth it because I have people like Beyoncé and Kobe Bryant coming after me. That's great marketing for a fledgling T-shirt business. Also, in the Silicon Valley, nine out of 10 startups will fail – so I am playing to the same philosophy; my 71 trademarks all represent 71 brands, so if nine in 10 fail, I should still get some that actually work. That’s fine, that’s something."
Besides denying knowledge of existing brands and marks, Lin is also seeking to evidence use for each term. Most are via T-shirt designs created by his full-time designer in Indonesia. One example relates to the mark MORTIMER MOUSE. The term is the same name that Walt Disney originally gave to the character that would become Mickey Mouse, and it was subsequently used for a character characterised as Mickey’s arch-nemesis. Lin explains: “I paid $1,800 to hire artist Guy Gilchrist, who has worked on shows such as Muppet Babies and Teenage Ninja Turtles. I then art directed my version of Mortimer Mouse, and so my trademark refers to my new animated character with triangular ears (because Disney went after Deadmau5 for his silhouette with circular ears).”
All of Lin’s work has been assisted by a trademark attorney at Portland-based firm BreanLaw (we contacted the firm for comment but have not yet had a response). While this has primarily involved filing work, there has also been advice on which applications shouldn’t be lodged. “There has been a number of trademarks that I have wanted to go for but that I was told not to,” Lin clarified. “I tried to file for Black Lives Matter, for example, and they said that it is in the public dialogue and I can't do it. So I didn't do it. When I wanted to get MAKE AMERIKKKA GREAT AGAIN, my attorney told me there is a 99.9999% chance that the USPTO would reject this. So I responded that it means there is a 0.0001% chance that I will get it – so let's go for it.” That application has since been suspended.
Overall, Lin sees his actions – both on designing T-shirts and filing trademarks – as a performance art piece. He says his job role at the T-shirt company is “CTM – chief troublemaker”, and says his primary inspirations at the company are “Banksy and the Apple commercial 'Crazy Ones', where historical figures are labelled troublemakers for challenging the status quo”, expanding: “This is a bit of an 'FU' to major corporations, the 1% and celebrities – I want to play Robin Hood and give back to non-profits. I'm the Banksy of trademarks and T-shirts. But ultimately, I’m someone that recently went through some difficult times, and I am just trying to move on with life and start over. If I wasn't a multi-millionaire, I could literally be homeless on the streets (in fact, I’m going to try and get homeless veterans to sell the T-shirts to earn money for themselves). Will I fail or be driven in the ground by costly legal fees? I don't know; I'm just trying to survive, to move on in life.”
The ‘Robin Hood’ stance of taking on major corporations appears to stand at odds with his earlier statement that he has no knowledge of the companies in question. And no doubt many readers of this site will see Lin’s use of terms that are related to brands in a negative light. However, it highlights how trademarks are sometimes being targeted and used in novel ways – in this instance, as perceived art pieces and as part of marketing the launch of a disruptive fashion company. The conundrum for brands is how to react; there is a need to protect marks but sometimes swinging into action is exactly what the applicant wants.