Bitter Buckeyes are reeling.
The U.S. Patent and Trademark Office has denied Ohio State University’s petition to trademark the word “The” as in, “The Ohio State University” (pronounced Thee Ohio State University) , contending that the word” the” is critical to much of the university’s merchandising all sorts of athletic gear and commemorative souvenirs. Unwary shoppers, the Patent Office was told, could mistake a sweatshirt from Ohio University or Miami University of Ohio for the genuine and more celebrated Ohio State brand, which does cast some shade on Buckeye Nation as one might assume that a fan knows the difference between teams even if their names contain many similar letters. Michigan/Michigan State, Colorado/Colorado State … not a lot of their fans out there proudly flying the wrong flag.
There are some interesting questions raised by the university’s claim to ownership, however, and those conversations may bring us to a higher plane of linguistic sensitivity. And, it should be noted, there may be opportunities to suggest that although there may be method in Ohio State’s application, yet there is madness in’t. So, let’s press on.
We’ll get terribly confused in trying to speak about the not-yet-trademarked word and the word we have been tossing around for centuries, primarily because t-h-e means different things to differing people. Henceforth, in order to avoid confusion, the word as used by the university will be emboldened (THE) to identify its distance from its more commonly used, and apparently, commonly owned cousin, the functional word.
The is a good word, a darned good word. We use it all the time, hardly noticing its graceful utility, just tossing it around as if we owned it. Maybe we’ve taken it for granted, assumed it would always be there when we needed it. Without it, we seem impetuous, imperious, reductive. Declaration of Independence. Gettysburg Address.
The (see?) evolution of Ohio State’s fixation on the word, its determination to achieve exclusive ownership of the word THE, begins with its position in the state’s birth order. Ohio University in Athens was founded in 1804. The two landmark liberal arts colleges in the State of Ohio, Kenyon and Oberlin, were founded in 1824 and 1833 respectively. THE Ohio State University was founded in 1870 as Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College, taking the name The Ohio State University in 1870 when then Governor Rutheford B. Hayes, a graduate of Kenyon, authorized the development of a comprehensive university.
THE University of Michigan, founded in 1817, THE University of Virginia, founded in 1819, and THE University of Pennsylvania, founded in 1740, might have jumped into the fray, were the fray not an exercise in absurdity. Virginia is secure enough to hang around without assuring its celebrants that it is the University of Virginia even though THE College of William and Mary, equally funded by the Commonwealth of Virginia is conspicuously older, founded in 1693. In tribute to THE Ohio State University’s initiative, THE University of Michigan has offered to trademark the word OF.
Lest a wary Buckeye dither over other attributes claimed by the university, be assured that applications for trademark protection of the names URBAN MEYER and WOODY HAYES are also under consideration. The resources of a gigantic enterprise such as THE Ohio State University demands specialized sets of skill, so it should come as no surprise that the Urban Meyer registration was handled by Ohio State’s Director of Trademark and Licensing Services, Rick Van Brimmer. Van Brimmer is not simply keeping an eye on names and articles; he’s currently working on trademarking The Oval, The Shoe, and OSU. Already trademarked are Brutus Buckeye, Script Ohio, Gold Pants, and Block O, the Buckeye Stripe, the helmet leaf, and their home and away uniforms,
The OSU issue is a bit tricky in that Oklahoma State University and Oregon State University suggest that their claim on the initials is as legitimate as Ohio State’s. At the moment, the trademark is licensed on a state by state, i.e. regional, basis. The greater complication, an innocent observer might note, is that by registering THE, Ohio’s state university should actually be represented as TOSU. Please call Van Brimmer at home to raise that point.
Trademarking and licensing belong in the nether reaches of marketing and finance, areas not commonly discussed in polite society. TOSU is not alone in having grasped the importance of keeping a stranglehold on an asset that might become commercially viable. Verizon holds a trademark on the scent they pump into their retail stores. “Flowery Musk Scent” sets the Verizon experience apart from others and must be protected. Tiffany Blue is a protected color, as is T-Mobile Magenta, Barbie Pink, and Wiffleball Bat Yellow.
As Kurt Vonnegut, a Midwesterner with an eye for the absurd might have said in encountering the trademark that UPS holds on its shade of brown, “So it goes.”