Vol. 53 No. 4 (2005)
Research Article

Surnames and American Trademark Law

Published 2005-12-01



American law discourages trademark registration of words that look and sound like surnames, yet some surnames are trademarks or parts thereof. The controlling issue in determining whether a mark is “primarily merely a surname” is its primary significance to the purchasing public, but several factors contribute to this determination: (1) surname rareness; (2) personal relation to the surname; (3) alternate meanings; (4) whether the mark has the structure and pronunciation of a surname; and (5) the mark's style. Thus, rarer, semantically developed, transparently onomastic words have a better chance of trademark status: it is by no means easy to determine what counts as the look and sound of a surname. Trademark law inadvertently promotes onomastic discrimination. Because the mass of American consumers easily identifies Western European surnames, those names are better protected from commercial appropriation. The “look and sound of a surname,” after all, is culturally determined. As a result, the law both reflects and reinforces attitudes about what counts as a surname and what doesn't.


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