‘O’ Stands for Oklahoma, Ohio, Oprah…

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As Steve blogged earlier this week, we’ve had a lot of “zero” on the mind lately—marks related to the word and numeral. It got me thinking about the letter ‘O,’ especially since it has been in recent trademark news.

If you missed it, The Ohio State University and Oklahoma State University are now dueling it out at the USPTO over Oklahoma’s trademark application related to the block ‘O.’ Specifically, Oklahoma is attempting to register a mark of “a drum major marching while leaning back with head tilted back”:

According to Oklahoma, it has been using the singular block ‘O’ since 2001, most notably on the jersey of its band’s drum major (but also on sports memorabelia):

But in an opposition to the mark, Ohio says it has been using the same letter since as early as 1898, and it’s current main athletics logo includes the block ‘O’ in the background:

According to Ohio, Oklahoma’s use of the leaning and tilted ‘O’ is likely to cause confusion. I wonder if any other O-state institutions will weigh in—looking at you, Oregon.

On the one hand, the block styling of the Oklahoma ‘O’ could cause consumers to accidentally purchase sports gear from the wrong institution. On the other hand, the letter ‘O’ is such a fundamental unit of the English language that it’s hard to argue just one institution should be entitled to its exclusive use—even if it’s only in the college sports context. And Oklahoma is only seeking registration of a mark which uses ‘O’ in a minor fashion. This seems like a potential case of nominative fair use. However, Oklahoma’s marching ‘O’ mark could run into issues related to the requirement that the mark be used in commerce. After all, it’s a mark representing the band major, who wears an ‘O.’ How does Oklahoma otherwise use the mark or plan to use it commerce?

It turns out that the letter ‘O’ is not widely used as a mark on its own. There are some recognizable uses, though. Perhaps the most distinctive use of the letter ‘O’ is the Oprah Magazine:

In 2001, a German magazine also named ‘O’ sued Oprah’s ‘O’ magazine, but the suit appears to have gone nowhere, and Oprah’s ‘O’ lives on.

The only other major ‘O’ competitor appears to be Cirque du Soleil:

Maybe there’s some potential for confusion between the Oklahoma drum major and those of the high-flying circus performers. Though, I’m guessing the audiences for both don’t substantially overlap.

I think the few recognizable instances of ‘O’ marks can be explained by the overall minor distinctiveness a single letter can generate when used in connection with a brand. This is the up-hill battle both Ohio and Oklahoma will face in arguing their sides of the trademark dispute. Stronger letter marks are paired with other words, such as O Magazine and O Cirque du Soleil. Another example comes to mind: Toys ‘R Us (also in the news lately).

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