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Protect their trademark rights? Yes, they can—and will

Barack’s flock contests those who hawk knock-offs

In a campaign that has often focused on which candidate better understands the needs of business, the Barack Obama campaign is getting some real-world practice in one business issue —protecting its trademarks from rivals selling similar-looking merchandise.

At the Democratic National Convention that runs in Charlotte from September 3-6, there will be as many as 34 retail vendors on Tryon Street—the city’s main drag—hawking  all kinds of Obama-themed trinkets and tchotchkes. But the Obama campaign is taking steps to ensure they won’t be selling anything emblazoned with the campaign’s iconic logo, a blue “O” whose white space creates an image of a sun rising over the horizon. The logo is legally trademarked by Organizing for America, the president’s re-election campaign.

In June, the campaign sued in Washington, D.C. federal court to prevent Demstore.org from selling merchandise using the trademark. In July, Judge Emmet G. Sullivan issued a preliminary injunction preventing the online store from using the logo. Later that month, the parties reached a settlement that made the injunction permanent.

Graphic: Olga_i / Shutterstock.com

No one from Organizing for America agreed to comment about the matter to Lawyers Weekly, but a visual search of Demstore.org showed that the site no longer offers merchandise with the “O” logo, although it continues to sell items bearing the names of the president and vice-president.

Deborah Gerhardt, a trademark law expert and professor at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill School of Law, said that the way the campaign has acted to protect its intellectual property provides an insight into its view on IP issues.

“I think it’s interesting to think about what this says about the people in Obama’s circle and what this reflects about their view of the business world, and the challenges that a business faces when someone else uses their brand and dilutes their story in a way they don’t have control over,” Gerhardt said. “Suing here where [demstore.org] used that particular symbol says something about where they think that balance should be struck, and I think that’s very interesting.”

Presidential candidates are always large targets for satire and mockery, and with the “O” logo being one of the most recognizable campaign logos in history, it’s been the frequent subject of parody. If a candidate used trademark protection to stifle constitutionally protected free speech, that would be a different issue, but Gerhardt said that doesn’t appear to be what’s happening in Obama’s case.

“They are not suing anyone using the symbol to critique the president. When the mark is being used for expressive purposes, they’re leaving people alone, but only when it gets to the point where people can really be deceived, it’s then that they step in. I think it’s an interesting choice where they draw the line, and it demonstrates more understanding of the business world than people often give his team credit for,” she said.

Of course, some of the Obama campaign’s interest in protecting the “O” logo may be due to the most basic analysis of all—the bottom line.

The Obama campaign smashed all previous fundraising records in 2008, but in the closing months of the 2012 campaign the Romney campaign has actually outraised the president. Romney took in more than $200 million in June and July, compared to $147 million for the Obama team.

In the most expensive election in history, sales of T-shirts and mugs are a crucial revenue stream. In politics as in business, it seems, trademark rights can be very valuable.

Follow David Donovan on Twitter @SCLWDonovan


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