Can a Trademark for “SEAL Team 6” be Registered?

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You may have heard of “SEAL Team 6,” even though, officially, such a team doesn’t exist.

According to the Wall Street Journal, the US Navy has never acknowledged the unit’s existence, though the Navy does acknowledge the existence of a group known as “United States Naval Special Warfare Development Group,” or “DevGru.” What definitely does exist and is highlighting an interesting trend in intellectual property is an apparent race to register “SEAL Team 6”—and other terms associated with the Navy group—for business use by companies and individuals that would seem to have no connection with the group (assuming the group exists at all).

Not long after President Obama’s historic announcement of the killing of Osama bin Laden, media giant Walt Disney Corporation filed to trademark “SEAL Team 6” for application to a number of proposed goods, including clothing, toys, games and even snow globes.

It turns out, Disney wasn’t alone in trying to capitalize on Bin Laden’s death: numerous applications were submitted to the USPTO after May 1 for phrases such as “Osama Bin Gotten!” and “Most Wanted Golf Balls” (which feature, in addition to Bin Laden’s image, those of Saddam Hussein and his two sons, Uday and Qusay—the editor holds no opinion regarding the degree of good or bad taste associated with such products, but does note that the golf ball application is as dead as its subjects). What makes Disney’s situation unique, however, is that the SEALs are an actual unit of the Navy, a government defense organization, and the name in question has to do with a mission of international significance.  That said, the question as to what government-associated emblems may or may not be registrable by others—case law seems to rest on whether the would-be registrant’s use of the proposed mark would or would not suggest a non-existent association between the registrant and the arm of the government in question.  In the past, an individual seeking to register the United States Postal Service symbol was denied for this implied association, while another registrant had his application granted for USMC (commonly associated with the Marines) because his company, United States Manufacturing Company would not confuse a consumer regarding a similar association.  Furthermore, arms of the military are not deemed “government insignia,” the registration of which is prohibited.

The Navy already has its own trademark for the word “SEAL,” but just days after Disney’s application was submitted, the Navy filed its own application with the USPTO. According to The Hollywood Reporter, the Navy’s application included a trademark request for “‘SEAL Team’ posters and clothing, as well as [other] ‘Navy SEAL’ goods and services, identifying the Navy squad as an organization.”

Perhaps due to Disney’s timing of this particular application or because of the widespread discussion about the subject, Disney withdrew its trademark application “out of deference to the Navy.” This most likely means a “SEAL Team 6” blockbuster won’t be hitting theaters anytime soon. (Which, as one blogger noted, will mean we won’t get acquainted with the villian “Osama Fin Laden.”) 

Disney’s abandonment of its application aside, intellectual property protection is becoming increasingly important in a global marketplace, and we can expect to see more cases of competing trademark applications covering real-life events. A search of “9/11,” turned up 106 related records. There are 19 related records for “Pearl Harbor,” and 87 for “FBI.”  One more curious note: for a trademark using someone’s name other than the registrant’s, the registrant must get permission from that person…or from his or her next of kin, should the person be deceased.  One wonders if anyone from the Bin Laden clan might surface to dispute the application for “Osama Bong Loadin”—oh, wait: that’s dead, too.)

Curious to see if other historic moments or names have been trademarked? Check out the USPTO Trademark Office website and click on “Search Marks.”