Michelle Mao is an IPilogue Writer and a 2L student at Osgoode Hall Law School.
You may recall Usain Bolt’s subtle but impactful tweet on August 23, 2022, adding a trademark emoji to his iconic quote, “To the World”. That tweet spoke to his trademark of his iconic “lightning” celebration pose, indicating Bolt’s possible plans to create merchandise using his iconic celebrity power and image. Indeed, when searching the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) database, the signature pose has been registered for many industries, including eyewear and accessories, clocks and watches, leathers, bags, clothing, footwear, games, entertainment, restaurants, etc. While Bolt’s trademark registration is for the design mark rather than the pose, the use of poses and gestures in branding can potentially bring a new wave of “unusual” trademarks, especially as social media and technology have spread previously unthought-of but recognizable traits. One type of “unusual” mark would be celebrities’ recognizable poses or gestures.
For some time now, celebrities’ brand images have increasingly used their iconic poses or features to market their brand to promote endorsed goods and services. For example, Kim Kardashian’s body-shaped perfume gained fame several years ago for demonstrating the recognizability of Kim K’s body as her brand. In the sports world, the trend to trademark poses and gestures like Bolt’s victory pose has been demonstrated for some time, including Mo Farah’s “Mobot” pose, Gareth Bale’s “elven of hearts” gesture, and Jesse Lingard’s “JLingz” gesture. Similar to Bolt’s trademark, one other notable trademarked pose as a design mark is Michael Jordan’s “Jumpman” which represents Michael Jordan’s Collaboration with Nike – the Air Jordan line.
To discuss future legal considerations arising from this trend of trademarking “unusual” marks, including poses and gestures, we must first understand the purpose and limits of trademarks.
The essential purpose of trademark law is to allow one entity to distinguish its goods and services from another’s. Therefore, a rule of thumb to consider when analyzing the possibility of trademark infringement is if the general public would be likely to confuse, be deceived, or mistake the source of the good or service. Trademarks do not necessarily prevent all others from utilizing the trademark in the future. A trademark protects a brand’s image by preventing others from imitating or devaluing the brand through association with a similar or identical mark. The USPTO mentions that if you trademark a mark, it does not allow you to gain rights over the mark in all uses but only allows you to gain exclusive rights to it in its specific category of goods and services.
So, what happens when the industry you are in requires selling yourself? For example, an influencer’s job is to promote products and services through their looks, personality, aesthetics, etc. An influencer can establish their brand through iconic and recognizable traits such as poses or physical features. An influencer’s image can be used to provide an endorsement service of a product or another service (for example, a celebrity holding up a branded item to be photographed). The option to trademark likeliness is available and is generally not an issue because likeliness is unique, but what about something more generic, like a pose, gesture, or silhouette?
The legal problem comes if the general public gets confused over whether an iconic or even trademarked gesture or pose is being used by a third party to refer to the originating individual or if the gesture or pose is used to signal an endorsement from the individual. For example, other athletes being pictured posing in Bolt’s victory pose may have sent a message that Bolt was endorsing them for whatever reason (luckily, in this case, it was a Twitter challenge tweeted by Bolt in 2018 before this trademark was submitted). If displaying a pose or gesture causes consumer confusion, we enter the territory of trademark infringement.
It will be interesting to see how trademarks evolve beyond word marks and design marks alongside increased online marketing through influencer brand endorsements. While Usain Bolt’s trademark this time is only for the flat design mark of his iconic pose, there is no doubt that trademarking poses, gestures, and other iconic traits will be on the minds of celebrities moving forward.