Today marks the beginning of the 2012 Summer Olympics in London, but for lawyers, the Olympics have been going on for a while. “Branding laws” in the UK were passed a few years ago to ensure that only the official sponsors of the London Olympics can use phrases such as “London 2012″ or Olympics-related designs. There has been criticism of the way these laws have been applied; a butcher was forced to remove a sign featuring the Olympic rings made out of sausages, and even the Duchess of Cambridge’s family’s party planning business had to make changes to its website.
Protecting trademarks (and other intellectual property) is a regular part of being a well-known brand. If a word or symbol becomes too synonymous with the product, trademark protection may be lost. That’s what happened to “aspirin,” “escalator,” and “Murphy bed.” So lawyers often send out “cease and desist” letters to people who are believed to be using a trademark without authorization.
While there has been criticism of the approach taken to protect the Olympics trademark, another approach has recently made news. Patrick Wensink recently received a cease-and-desist letter from the attorneys for Jack Daniel’s, which has been hailed as “the most polite, encouraging, and empathetic cease-and-desist letter ever to be sent in the history of lawyers and humanity.” Mr. Wensink’s book, Broken Piano for President, features a cover that looks remarkably like the Jack Daniel’s logo. Jack Daniel’s attorney, Christy Susman, sent Mr. Wensink a letter that very politely explained that while they are “certainly flattered by [Wensink's] affection for the brand” and “appreciate the pop culture appeal of Jack Daniel’s,” they have to protect their trademark and request that the cover design be changed. Jack Daniel’s even offered to pay part of the costs of changing the design quickly.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has a searchable database of both “live” and “dead” trademarks, TESS. You can use that system to search for the Jack Daniel’s mark (the serial number is 85456921) or any trademark from an organization like the United States Olympic Committee.