Ohio State’s new trademark for “THE” doesn’t prevent anyone from using the word. It just prevents colleges from making it the main element on athletic apparel.
In late June, an unusual news headline made its way to social media: “‘THE’ is now trademarked in the United States, by Ohio State University.”
Many of the replies to the news were confused by the university’s action. “Imagine thinking you essentially ‘own’ this word,” one person jokingly replied with a screenshot of the word’s definition.
“I am so confused. They trademarked the regular old word ‘the’?” another person asked. “Or is it just the word in all caps for clothing? What significance does ‘the’ even have for them?”
Does Ohio State University now own the word “the?”
No, Ohio State University does not own the word “the.” Trademarks have to be for specific uses, and Ohio State’s is for apparel representing collegiate athletics.
WHAT WE FOUND
Ohio State’s interest with the word “the” has to do with how it was named. According to the university’s archives, it was renamed from Ohio Agricultural and Mechanical College to The Ohio State University in 1878. An online version of The Verified Revised Statutes of the State of Ohio confirms the university’s claim: It was renamed to “The Ohio State University,” capital T and all.
The university is so serious about the “the” part of its name, that it went as far as trademarking the word with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). Now, there’s a live, registered trademark for “THE” — the all-caps version of the word, not the word written out in lower case letters.
But that doesn’t mean Ohio State owns the word, or even the all-caps version of the word.
“A common misconception is that having a trademark means you legally own a particular word or phrase and can prevent others from using it,” USPTO says. “However, you don’t have rights to the word or phrase in general, only to how that word or phrase is used with your specific goods or services.”
As an example, USPTO explains that a small woodworking business can trademark its logo to distinguish itself from others in the woodworking field, but it cannot stop others from using a similar logo in fields not related to woodworking.
A closer look at Ohio State’s registered trademark reveals exactly that. It’s for “Clothing, namely, t-shirts, baseball caps and hats; all of the foregoing being promoted, distributed, and sold through channels customary to the field of sports and collegiate athletics.” That means team merch, as shown by an example in the trademark application.
Back in 2020, Ohio State announced it had filed a trademark to the grammatical article for “limited uses in apparel.” In its news release, the university explained it was a “defensive action” in response to designer Marc Jacobs’ trademark application to use the word on clothing in a way the university deemed similar to its brand.
“Ohio State’s application is for clothing and is only concerned with applications of ‘THE’ when used in ways that are associated with the university and its brand,” the news release said.
Although Marc Jacobs’ trademark application, which USPTO has not registered yet, is for clothing items “promoted, distributed, and sold through channels customary to the field of contemporary fashion,” Ohio State argued that Marc Jacobs’ trademark created a likelihood of confusion — basically their trademarks were so similar and the products they listed for its use were related enough, that someone might think one trademark is related to the other.
Ohio State later withdrew its opposition to Marc Jacobs’ trademark after the two sides came to an agreement, allowing Marc Jacobs’ application to continue. Should USPTO accept and register Marc Jacobs’ trademark application, then both Ohio State and Marc Jacobs will have a trademark for “THE” to be used on clothing, the only difference being the former will put it on athletics merchandise and the latter will put it on contemporary fashion items.
But even though The Ohio State University has a trademark for “THE,” people won’t have to pay Ohio State every time they use “the” in a sentence, and other other universities won’t have to drop “the” from their names.
The trademark only prevents other universities, let’s pick a random, unrelated school like the University of Michigan, from selling athletics apparel with a big all-caps “THE” emblazoned on the front and above the University of Michigan name or logo.