Trademarks and Black Lives Matter

Black Lives Matter. I Can’t Breathe. Say Her Name. George Floyd. Trayvon Martin. Breonna Taylor.  Unfortunately, the list of phrases and names goes on.  With each police involved killing, a new hashtag is born.  And after awhile we see it everywhere.  Used in connection with social media posts, on protest signs and t-shirts, and in connection with requests for donations to support change.

Whenever a death occurs, there is usually a slight influx of trademark applications submitted to the USPTO.  For example, there are 30 applications that have been filed with the phrase Black Lives Matter, 13 applications with the phrase I Can’t Breathe, and 3 that include the name Trayvon Martin.  Applications are filed by a variety of sources, including individuals, newly created foundations, the deceased’s estate, or other organizations.

Many of the applications have been abandoned after receiving one of two refusals for registration.  The first refusal these applications may receive is because they suggest a false connection with someone or their estate, and that individual is not connected to the trademark application.  For example, one application for the mark I Can’t Breathe was refused registration for a false connection with the estate of Eric Garner.  Those that can show connection to the individual or institution can overcome this refusal.

Another refusal these applications receive are because they are such a commonly used phrase that consumers will not recognize it as a trademark.  In other words, the term or phrase is used by so many that the public would not believe it is supposed to indicate one particular source.  Instead they would read the phrase as simply indicating support of the message or movement.  This refusal can be overcome by submitting evidence that the public will view the mark to indicate a single source.

If you see a trademark application in the USPTO records and have evidence that it is owned by a group other than those actually connected with the movement or individual, you can contact the USPTO through a letter of protest.  More information on submitting letters of protest can be found on the USPTO website at .

Although many are unable to register these names and phrases with the USPTO, they may still use them in connection with their products and services.  Not all that are using the names and phrases are part of the movement.  Check out this NPR story about the Black Lives Matter foundation which has collected millions of dollars during the recent protests, but has no connection the well-known Black Lives Matter Global Network foundation:

As we choose groups to support through sharing information, purchasing products, or donating money to an organization, we should be sure to check the source that we are supporting.  Website and social media “about” pages or sections should give additional details about the organization to confirm whether it’s the group you actually want to support.