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03/07/01 . By Emma Brockes . Guardian . UK  
Whose line is it anyway?  
McDonald's would like to deliver a message to the people of the world: "We Value You, Your Growth and Your Contributions." This is the People Promise, dedicated to the "1.5m people who work at McDonald's and to all future employees," which, lets face it, widens the potential range of its address to everyone. It greets visitors to the burger giant's website, but there are other, less visible McDonald's messages known mainly to the United States Patent and Trademark Office, which deliver a rather different message. Emma Brockes on how McDonald's is trademarking just about everything we say.  

Tuesday July 3, 2001

The 131 trademarks owned by the McDonald's Corporation summon a more delicious image of the company than any single mission statement. The sheer size of the list implies a thoroughness of approach that critics of the food chain will call despotic, others, mildly pedantic. Whatever their reception, the trademarks - many of them inspirational, go get 'em type platitudes - attain a level of comprehensiveness that is just, well, soooo McDonald's. There are the Napoleonic ("changing the face of the world"), the soppy ("We Love to See you Smile," "You deserve a Break Today"); the brainless ("Twoallbeefpattiesspecialsaucelettucecheesepicklesoniononasesameseedbun") and the conceited ("Lifting Kids to a Better Tomorrow", "Black History Makers of Tomorrow"). There are the obscure - "Hey, it could happen!" - and the ludicrous: "the House that Love Built."

And then there are slightly creepy trademark phrases, those that seek to link the burger chain with American world domination. To whatever use McDonald's puts the phrase "When the US wins, you win," it doesn't underplay the chain's association with US cultural arrogance.

The surprising thing about all this is that a company as sophisticated as McDonald's should bother trademarking every passing phrase gener ated by its copywriting department. Bill Moodie, trademark lawyer and head of the intellectual property department at Herbert Smith, is delicately critical. "As a lawyer, I would advise my client against it," he says. "Companies go through phases - they might have a highly trademark conscious in-house team, or one without much experience, which seeks to register everything in sight because it thinks it gives them extra protection. So companies have big bursts of trademark registration activity. And then they realise how much it's costing them. You have to pay substantial fees to each trademark office around the world - there is no centralised system - and every 10 years, you have to pay renewal fees. The finance director might finally say, hang on, what's the benefit of spending a million dollars on registering McDonald's All American High School Jazz Band?"

Technically, any number of words can be registered as a trademark, as long as they are distinctive (once you get above, say, 10, the process becomes meaningless). A trademark phrase may appear in novels, and be freely used in speech. Where it may not be repeated is in a commercial context of any kind.

Infringement of this law is not as difficult as you might think. A visit to the United States Patent and Trademark website gives some measure of this: type the first words that come into your head into their search engine, and you will probably find them to be trademarked somewhere round the world. "Have a nice day" goes to a cosmetics company in New York; "How are you feeling?" to a software company in Delaware; a psychologist from Connecticut has trademarked the more informal "How Ya Doin?"

The temptation to search for rude words is impossible to resist, and the entries can be envisaged humming in neon on bill boards, causing minor traffic accidents. (To get you started, try Oh Shit bingo chips in Florida, Bum peanuts in California and the Nevada chicken wings with the catchline, "I lost my ass in Las Vegas.")

But trademarking is no joke to the corporations. Microsoft wins the award for most picky infringement warnings, including its guide to grammatical accuracy. "DO NOT USE OUR TRADEMARKS AS POSSESSIVES OR IN PLURAL FORMS," yells the legal advice on the corporation website. "Microsoft MAY NEVER be incorporated in your company name." There follows several pages of clarifications ("Trademarks are adjectives that describe a specific brand of product," it adds helpfully. "Because a trademark is an adjective, use it with the appropriate noun that it modifies.") Master this lot and you could be in line for that much coveted title, McScholar of the Year.  
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