Our trademarked world: how phrases, hashtags and even colours can be owned

WATCH ABOVE: Trademarking hashtags can hurt brands, according to experts. Peter Kim reports.

TORONTO — Remember when “that’s hot” was a thing? Long after a brand, phrase, or term (and the celebrity who uttered it) has faded from popularity, its trademark can remain.

These days, it seems just about everything is owned by someone.

Singing superstar Taylor Swift recently trademarked “This Sick Beat”, “Cause We Never Go Out of Style” and numerous other lyric snippets. They are now her personal property, so forget buying a T-shirt or bag emblazoned with the words, unless of course it’s official Swift merchandise.

Those adorable Minions? Pantone has crated a shade, called what else, Minion Yellow, which is “an illuminating, energetic, friendly and fun-loving yellow shade that immediately calls out to you.” The sunny yellow can be used to say, paint your kids’ playroom, but the branded shade is protected against use for commercial gain.

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Heading to a Super Bowl party at your local pub? Not so fast. Even the words “Super Bowl” are protected, to be used by only the businesses and brands partnered with the NFL.

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“Trademark protection is very specific to a certain set of goods or services,” said Toronto lawyer John Simpson. He said holders can be entitled to damages if their trademark is used without permission.

“Most commonly what is sought is an injunction in order for the court to tell the person to stop. Although damages in trademark cases are notoriously difficult to prove.”

Especially in business, a brand is the company’s reputation and identity.

“Your brand can be shown in many ways. It could be a brand name or the shape of your brand product or its container. In any event, you should protect it under law, and the way to do that is with a registered trademark,” the Canadian Intellectual Property Office website states.

In recent years, the trademarking of hashtagged words have grown in popularity.

Pan Am Games organizers claimed #TO2015 ahead of this summer’s games in Toronto. According to Brent Stirling, social media strategist with the DMZ at Ryerson University, “owning” a hashtag can backfire.

“What you want to do with a hashtag when you’re marketing anything on social is have people share it, to create a larger community around that hashtag, to have it trend Canada wide, worldwide,” said Stirling.

“But if people are afraid that there is going to be some kind of legal repercussion because they’ve tweeted about it, they’re most likely not going to share it.”

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In Canada a registered trademark is protected for 15 years, after which it is renewable.

According to the Canadian Intellectual Property Office, these are the guidelines for what can’t be registered:

  • names and surnames;
  • clearly descriptive marks;
  • “deceptively misdescriptive” marks;
  • words that denote a geographical location commonly known to be the place of origin of such goods or services;
  • words on other languages;
  • words or designs that are considered confusing with a previously registered trademark or pending trademark; and
  • words or designs that nearly resemble a prohibited mark.

With files from Peter Kim

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