Currently, the most powerful and widely recognized group of words in the United States is “Black Lives Matter.” These three words when combined instantly convey a myriad of emotions and represent what will likely be a major turning point in our country’s history. They extend beyond any one person, viewpoint, or organization. The “Black Lives Matter” slogan belongs to the people.
However, “Black Lives Matter” obviously has an origin. Someone at some point strung these three words together. Regardless of the origin, “Black Lives Matter” became the slogan of a civil rights movement. There are t-shirts, hashtags, a website, an organization, and so much more. But does any one person or entity own trademark rights to “Black Lives Matter?” The answer is NO. But efforts have been made.
Since 2015, there have been 15 trademark applications seeking the registration of “Black Lives Matter” for various goods and services. However, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) rejected every application. So, why was every application rejected?
In order to function as a trademark, a slogan needs to convey the source of the goods and/or services to the consuming public. The USPTO refused to register these applications because “Black Lives Matter” “conveys an informational social, political, religious, or similar kind of message; it does not function as a trademark or service mark to indicate the source of applicant’s goods and to identify and distinguish them from others.” See Office Action of U.S. Application Serial No. 87660438. In other words, “Black Lives Matter” is not registerable because it is a world renown slogan used to “raise awareness of civil rights, protest violence, and convey the message of support for the same.” Id. The USPTO determined that “the public would not perceive the slogan ‘BLACK LIVES MATTER’ as source-identifying matter that identifies applicant alone as the source of the goods/services but rather [the slogan is] an expression of support for anti-violence advocates and civil rights groups.” Id. Put more simply, the slogan “Black Lives Matter” does not identify a particular person or entity, but instead is an expression of support for anti-violence advocates and civil rights groups.
Ultimately, the USPTO determined that “Black Lives Matter” belongs to the movement, not to an individual person or entity. This is the right decision. No single individual or entity should have the right to exclude others from using these words. “Black Lives Matter” needs to be used freely until we have equality and the USPTO has done its part to ensure that the “Black Lives Matter” slogan belongs to the people.