Can you really trademark a name?
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The question of whether the federal government allows people to trademark a name depends on whether their name holds more significance than just being "primarily" a surname.
In other words: Does the name have additional meaning, particularly in commerce?
Why Trademark a Name
A trademark typically protects brand names and logos used on goods and services. If you invent a new kind of widget, for example, you wouldn't seek a trademark but a patent to protect the invention. You would register a trademark to protect the brand name of the widget.
A name that is "primarily merely a surname" is not registrable without of secondary meaning under common law.
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In Palin's case, her application to trademark a name made reference to her role as a Fox News contributor. She listed goods and services such as providing information about political elections and running a political website.
Palin also listed her work as a public speaker, which generates tens of thousands of dollars in revenue for her at almost every appearance. Her application to trademark a name cited "educational and entertainment services, namely, providing motivational speaking services in the field of politics, culture, business and values."
U.S. Reluctant to Trademark a Name
The United States is reluctant to trademark a name because it does not want to forbid a person to use his own name in his own business, according to a U.S. Court of Appeals opinion on the issue.
"Supposing a man named Brooks opened a clothing store under his name, should this prevent a second Brooks from opening a clothing store under his own (identical) name even though consumers did not yet associate the name with the first Brooks's store? It should not," the court wrote.
It also said that some names are so common that there's no way people would assume two establishments given the same name are connected. "If there are two bars in a city that are named 'Steve's,' people will not infer that they are owned by the same Steve," the court wrote.
Palin's name, though, is so distinct that those issues don't apply.
Palin Effort to Trademark a Name
Palin's move to trademark a name is probably a good idea, given that she's become a brand in and of herself.
Others have tried to capitalize on the Palin name.
There was an effort to trademark the title "Democrats for Palin/Bachmann in 2012" for use on T-shirts; "Sarah Palin's Going Rogue Rouge" for use on bottles of red wine; "Palin" for use in sports apparel; and "Palin: The Only Man in the Race" for use on bumper stickers.