Greta Thunberg - climate activist or trade mark?

11.02.20

Last week, Greta Thunberg announced that she had applied to register her name as a European Union trade mark. Ms Thunberg is well known for her climate activism but is her name likely to receive this type of intellectual property protection?

Registration of a trade mark for the name of a well-known person is not unusual. In a world obsessed with sports superstars, A-list film stars and social media influencers, it is perhaps unsurprising that famous faces want to both profit from their name and stop others from using it for financial gain without their permission.

According to Ms Thunberg, her reasons for applying to trade mark her name are less commercially motivated, and instead relate to preventing “imposters” from taking advantage of her name and creating the perception that they are acting on her behalf or with her blessing.

She does not intend to commercialise her name with intent to make profit, for example, by selling Greta Thunberg branded merchandise - although it will be used in connection with her charitable work. 

Given her proposed use of the trade mark though, is it even capable of registration? A trade mark is a badge of origin so it must distinguish the goods and services of one person from the goods and services of another.

However, Ms Thunberg is commonly associated with climate change activism rather than the trading of goods or services.

Indeed, her fame may actually make her application more difficult and will likely mean that she will have to provide the registrar with convincing evidence that the public do in fact think her name is a badge of origin for goods or services, as opposed to the name of a famous climate change activist. 

Usually, a famous name will be registered in connection with any goods or services that are intended to be sold. For example, a sports star is likely to register for clothing or merchandise. It appears that Ms Thunberg has sensibly sought registration for services directly associated with her activism such as education, advertising of environmental issues and scientific research.

This should make convincing the registrar that her name is a badge of origin an easier task. However, she has also sought registration in relation to insurance and financial affairs; this is likely to be more difficult as she does not have a reputation for such activities.  

If a trade mark is granted for these services then she must use the trade mark in relation to them, otherwise she risks revocation.

If the trade mark is successfully registered, then Ms Thunberg may be able to use it to stop anyone using her name to raise funds or misrepresent a connection with her, without her permission.

However, it does not provide a blanket ban on people using her name, which means that people can still refer to her or describe her activities, provided it is not for commercial gain. 

Registration of a trade mark by Ms Thunberg is a sensible step to protect her name. However, the extent of trade mark protection for the name of a famous person has not actually been tested in court.

It may be that, because the name Greta Thunberg is associated with the person rather than the goods and services, the courts will be slow to find any instances of infringement unless the name is being used in a way to clearly mislead or confuse the public.

This article originally appeared in the Herald.
 

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