The essential relationship between trademark law and PR

All businesses want to maintain the reputation of their brands. That’s just basic common sense. However, if the major trademark news stories of 2016 have taught us anything, it’s that PR can play a more important role in brand reputation, in addition to trademark registration and protection.

One story from the beginning of the year springs to mind, in which a consumer technology giant attempted to trademark a generic phrase that’s widely used among the YouTube community. The trademark was initially filed towards the end of 2015, but it wasn’t until January that the news became public, at which point the online community was quick to harangue the company for trying to trademark something that bears no obvious benefits.

When the story first became public, lawyers spoke out to make it clear that there was no obvious reason to apply for the specific trademark other than to monopolise an already ubiquitous term. Not even trademark experts could find a way to justify the application, and with no obvious PR plan from the company in question, the negative press continued to rain down upon them.

There was another story in June, in which a US-based internet security company attempted to trademark three iterations of a phrase that was being used by a direct competitor company. The backlash came swift and sharp, with many social media users accusing the company of ‘trademark trolling’, while the executive director of the group responsible for the defending company wrote a strongly-worded statement on its website.

At this point, most companies would try to politely explain their reasoning behind the attempted trademarks, but not in this case. Instead, the CEO of the offending company continued to ruffle feathers by posting a series of angry messages on its public message board. This not only intensified the backlash, and eventually the company were left with no choice other than to abandon the trademark applications altogether.

Stories such as these have been rife throughout 2016, and in each case the negative brand impact has been exacerbated by social media, which causes the story to spread like wildfire and whips up a collective cacophony of outrage. That’s why, in order to minimise brand reputation damage, there must be a symbiotic relationship between trademark and PR teams.