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Why Trademarks Make Lousy Lin-vestments

Those hoping to cash in on New York Knicks phenom Jeremy Lin by trademarking puns on his name may end up looking as clueless as the NBA basketball teams who let the point guard slip through their fingers, lawyers say.

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In the past week, two men filed applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to claim ownership to phrases including “Linsanity” and “Lin-credible.” Such “trademark squatting” is becoming increasingly common, says Darren Geliebter, an intellectual property attorney based in New York — especially since the advent of online applications. The number of new trademark requests more than quadrupled over the past 20 years from 43,152 in 1991 to 177,661 last year, USPTO data shows. But Federal guidelines do not allow the names — or even riffs on the names — of living people to be trademarked without their consent, Geliebter says. Dead people are generally fair game, although the law does make one exception: “deceased U.S. presidents.” The USPTO says it does not track data on celebrity applications and would not comment on squatting.

As for these Linvestors, they will probably lose the $275 to $325 application fee they forked over to claim the intent to sell apparel with the Lin name, Geliebter says. “They do not have much of a case to make. If I were Lin’s lawyer, I would tell him not to give them one penny.” (The Knicks declined to comment). That’s not to say trademark squatting can’t be a profitable investment in other instances, Geliebter says. When a new term or catchphrase becomes popular, there’s a better chance of laying claim to owning the mark. “A lot of cash does change hands” when companies fail to protect their brands, he says. “For instance, Twitter at first did not trademark the word Tweet, and others jumped in.”

The prohibition on trademarking the names of living people seems to do little to stop such applications. For instance, NFL star Tim Tebow recently inspired such trademarks as “What would Tebow do?” and “Winning is IneviTebow.” Politicians are also popular for trademark targets, with recent examples such as “Mobama” and “It’s RMoney! Vote Romney.”

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