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In our opinion: Trademarking the 'I believe …' cheer reveals the slippery slope of protecting words and phrases

Published: Saturday, July 19 2014 8:19 p.m. MDT

United States fans cheer before the start of the World Cup soccer match between the United States and Belgium at a viewing party in Indianapolis, Tuesday, July 1, 2014.

Michael Conroy, Associated Press

“I … I believe … I believe that … I believe that we … I believe that we will win!”

Fans chant the progressive yet pumped-to-jump-up cheer at all levels of sporting events — most recently as the rallying cry for the U.S. men’s national soccer team at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil, with the passionate cheer featured in ESPN commercials.

Locally known as the mantra of Utah State University student fans, the cheer is used by other universities, too. “I believe that we will win” got its start at the 1999 Army-Navy football game, when a Navy yell-leader tested the friend-suggested phrase in teaching the Midshipmen the chant.

“I believe that we will win” now takes on a new meaning — in winning potential legal battles. It’s a phrase that pays possible dividends — as a trademark.

According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, a trademark “is a word, phrase, symbol or design, or a combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs that identifies and distinguishes the source of goods of one party from those of others.”

While the “I believe …” phrase was becoming the repeated refrain of U.S. soccer fans during World Cup play, a USA Today article acknowledged San Diego State University had long since filed with the trademark office to use “I believe that we will win” as a slogan on clothing, caps and other items. The cheer now most recognized with U.S. soccer in fact may soon be controlled by SDSU.

Word of the federal filing surprised Utah State officials, too, since USU previously had filed for such a trademark — albeit on a statewide level. Filed in October 2011, San Diego State’s application gets published for opposition next week, with Utah State and any others given 30 days to oppose the request. By late August, the phrase could be deemed SDSU’s.

Welcome to the slippery slope of trademarks, where Boise State University can trademark the use of a blue-colored artificial-turf football field, and where the NFL’s Washington franchise can lose the trademark protection of its longtime “Redskins” mascot name after it was deemed disparaging and voided by the trademark office. The team can still use the mascot name but so can anyone else wanting to produce and market Redskins-labeled paraphernalia, resulting in lost revenues for the franchise.

And that slippery slope is not just limited to sports. Be careful when you say something like “We should talk” (trademarked by Bank of New York Mellon), “maybe we should talk” (Physicians Mutual Insurance), “let’s get ready to rumble” (ring announcer Michael Buffer) or simply “bam!” (celebrity chef Emeril Lagasse).

Corporations and individuals will try to protect — and cash in — on all sorts of phrases, symbols and such. Consider previously failed attempts: Dunkin’ Donuts couldn’t trademark “Best Coffee in America,” nor Donald Trump the phrase “you’re fired,” nor Disney the Mexican holiday “Día de los Muertos.” Also, a French company was denied its request to trademark the smell of strawberries, Walmart the yellow smiley face design and Harley Davidson the sound of a revving motorcycle engine.

It will be interesting to watch what happens with the trademarking attempt of “I believe ….” In the meantime, one may be mindful of words, phrases, symbols and designs being used so not to violate trademark protections. Or others might want to get a jump and trademark something as you’re their own.

We’d conclude by saying “that’s a good idea” and “this is what it’s all about” — but those are Rubbermaid and NFL trademarks, respectively.

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