Military Fighting to Protect Trademarks — By Suing Veterans

Sunday, 25 May 2014 08:21 PM

By Sandy Fitzgerald

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The Pentagon is busy fighting a new battle — this time on the homefront, where its attorneys are busy sending cease-and-desist letters to former veterans and companies hoping to cash in on a wave of patriotism by using military terms and symbols.

As more of the country's armed services forces return home as the war winds down in Afghanistan, many of the more business-minded veterans are starting businesses and hope to attract customers through showing their affiliation with the military, reports The New York Times.

The military's brand is showing up on many types of items, from garage doors to a toilet paper being marketed as "Leatherneck Wipes." As a result, an unprecedented number of military attorneys have been registering trademarks through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in hopes of making sure the military gets a cut of licensing fees for items such as Guadalcanal sweatshirts and other items.

According to the Department of Defense, its official seal and seals from the service branches are already protected by law from unauthorized use, "and these seals may not be used for non-official purposes."

However, the military may approve the use of their service emblem or coat of arms, or a substitute of them, on a case-by-case basis. However, the DOD points out, there is no substitute for its own seal and no optional graphic that represents it.

Between 2003 and 2008, the U.S. Marine Corps registered only 5 trademarks, but as troops returned home from Iraq and Afghanistan, the branch registered nine trademarks in 2010 and the first half of 2011.

It's not only returning troops who are trying to cash in. After Navy SEALs killed Osama bin Laden in 2011, Disney attempted a trademark on the name SEAL Team Six, prompting the Navy to quickly trademark the terms "SEAL team" and "Navy SEALs."

But the largest battle in 2012 and 2013 has been with servicemen and women coming home to set up business, and all branches of the military have seen more people trying to use military branding to attract customers.

"Because we’ve been in two wars in 10 years, we’ve had a lot of patriotism," Philip Greene, the Marines' trademark counsel, told The Times. "An unpleasant part of my job is going out and talking to a Marine" and having to say no to someone who is proud of their service and wants to show off their association.

For example, Green had to call Marine veteran Shadrach Brooks, who started Semper Fidelis Garage Doors in Arizona in 2012. In addition to the Marine motto, Brooks also used the Marine seal on his masthead. Eventually, Brooks was allowed to keep the company name, but agreed to use an image of two crossed swords instead of the Marine logo.

The military does collect license fees from some businesses, and since 2009 has collected some $5.4 million, with $700,000 turned over to a morale, welfare, and recreation fund.

The Marines had the largest spike in trademarks, with many former Marines eager to use the brand in their new businesses. But Jessica O'Haver, director of the Marine Corps Trademark Licensing Office, said the major priority is protecting the trademarks' historic integrity.

But some veterans believe they have earned the right to use the brands.

"They believe they earned it on Parris Island," said Capt. Eric Flanagan, a Marine Corps spokesman, to the corps South Carolina training camp. "They died for it, and now you’re going to try to take it? You going to take that tattoo off my arm, too?"

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