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USM©: Inside The Marine Corps’ Heated Campaign To Protect Its Sacred Brand
In 2002, Jeff Morin was a young lance corporal, just two years into a hitch in the Marines, when he struck on a business idea that combined his pride and his artistry: designing challenge coins out of his Camp Lejeune barracks. Morin would purchase generic Marine Corps commemorative coins in town and sell them on eBay for a little profit. Morin's peers took a fast interest in his wares.
As he filled orders for Marines in different units and job fields across the base, word travelled up his chain of command. “It ended up getting to the first sergeant," he told Task & Purpose — and she wasn't overly pleased about a young E-3 running a private business on government property. Morin was given a choice: Quit the side job, or move off base (and collect a housing allowance). It was an easy decision.
After another two years off-base flipping coins out of a house he shared with another Marine, Morin left his job as a network administrator in the Corps, but his time in uniform continued to provide inspiration for his now-burgeoning, full-time business, Coins for Anything.
A typical “vetrepreneur" success story, right? That's what Morin thought — until, after a decade of selling moto coins to Marines, their families, and friends, he got an unexpected call from the Corps. It turns out he was violating the service's numerous trademarks, and he'd have to pay up if he wanted to keep stamping his products with the Marines' intellectual property.
Morin was shocked. He'd already earned the title, done right by his commanders, made coin-carrying Marines happy... and now his beloved Corps threatened his livelihood.
“Isn't the eagle, globe, and anchor owned by the people, the taxpayer, by the veterans?" he remembers asking when he got the call. “Where is this coming from?"
The few, the proud, the trademark litigants
Morin's questions seem fair to many veterans. As the nation's Global War on Terror slogs on in old theaters and expands to new ones, many business-savvy vets are leaving uniformed life for the private sector, where they've made a significant economic impact — roughly 400,000 businesses, majority-owned by veterans, accounted for 7.2% of employers in the United States in 2015. These veterans have founded companies, hired thousands of fellow former service members, and created forums and online spaces where military-centric communities thrive. And subsequently, they've helped fuel a larger cultural frenzy for all things “mil-spec," “moto," “tacticool," and “vet." (Task & Purpose and its parent company, Lafayette Media Group, owe their existence to this wave of interest and support.)
In a politically polarized America, the military is the only U.S. institution that has the confidence of a vast majority of Americans anymore — which may play a role in why there's such a huge market share for troop-related products. But converting military service into a commodity has put some veteran-run businesses — as well as a number of civilian companies — at odds with the very institutions their products highlight: the United States armed forces.
In the last decade, the military has launched a massive legal campaign to protect its trademarks — words, phrases, symbols, or designs that distinguishes the products of one group from another. As a result, more and more businesses are receiving stern warnings or cease-and-desist notifications on government letterhead.
No branch has maneuvered into trademark-protection mode as swiftly and sharply as the Marine Corps, famed for its members' near-fanatical devotion to the service. Since its establishment in 2009, the Marine Corps Trademark Licensing Office has worked to preserve the intellectual property of the military's smallest branch. But as the demand for militaria grows, the Corps finds itself mired in an escalating fight to preserve its intellectual property: Last year alone, the service registered 114 trademarks and defended a further 17 from infringement.
If that doesn't sound like a lot, consider that when the office was established nine years ago the Marines owned only six trademark registrations; now they have 474.
The 12th general order: Know your trademark laws
First off, relax: Former Marines don't need need to be worried about the Corps chasing them down for those eagle, globe, and anchor tats they got after enlisting (or all those “USMC" emblazoned hats and shirts that come out every November). There's no law against proudly (and loudly) laying claim to a 242-year-old legacy of kicking ass. If a Marine vet wants to festoon their truck with a gigantic USMC emblem, “that's perfectly fine and there's no permission required," says Jessica O'Haver, who runs point over at the Marine Corps Trademark Licensing Office as its director.
“When you use the eagle, globe, and anchor commercially, for your own personal benefit, [you're saying] 'What can the Marine Corps do for me?' When they make the transition to promoting their own commercial activity, that's when we don't allow it."
For those still serving in uniform, there are some limits on what they can make using the service's trademarks for personal use. For example, O'Haver told Task & Purpose, “they couldn't create any derogatory or offensive graphics such as designs that incorporated foul language, political activism, racism, sexual innuendo and so forth."
However, in the case of private citizens or veterans, if they decide to, say, grab a pair of EGAs and place them alongside a guidon on a red shirt so it looks like a penis...
…that's fine under Title 32 CFR 765.14, a legal statute covering the unofficial inclusion of the Corps' name, its initials, and emblems in products for personal use. The main thrust is pretty clear:
No request for permission is required when a use or imitation of the Marine Corps emblem, names, or initials includes prominent display of the disclaimer, 'Neither the United States Marine Corps nor any other component of the Department of Defense has approved, endorsed, or authorized this product (or promotion, or service, or activity)' as an integral part of the use of imitation.
So the good news is if you want to make a silly shirt or something just for yourself — not for sale; or to promote your intramural beer pong team, nonprofit, or other function or group; or to imply endorsement from the Marine Corps — you don't need the service's permission, just a big-ass disclaimer “in letters at least one half the size and density of the insignia."
“We're not in the business of censoring people in that manner — it wouldn't be approved, so if they came and asked me, I'd say, 'No' — but if they went and did it, we're not going to sue them," O'Haver said. “There's a point of free speech where a citizen can do that.'"
However, the moment you try to leverage the Marine Corps to boost your brand and make money, “that's where we draw the line in the sand," O'Haver explained. “When you use the eagle, globe, and anchor commercially, for your own personal benefit, [you're saying] 'What can the Marine Corps do for me?' When they make the transition to promoting their own commercial activity, that's when we don't allow it."
In one prickly case the trademark office took on a few years ago, a Marine's significant other fabricated a dildo based on her boyfriend's, um, unit.
Though it may initially have been for personal use, the green-weenie replica became an issue for the Marines when the woman began a small-scale business venture and promoted the product online, embossed with an eagle, globe, and anchor to turn a quick profit.
“She was selling it for money," O'Haver said. “It was a real-life useable dildo. That's what it was. The packaging had EGAs on it, and it was modeled after her boyfriend, who was a Marine."
Because of the sexual nature of the item, O'Haver said, the trademark office “had to tackle it and clobber it."
No OOH RAH? What about… OORAH!
The eagle, globe, and anchor insignia accounts for the majority of trademark violations the Corps deals with, but not all. The Marines have a vast catalog of trademarks, which includes enlisted rank insignia, unit logos, and sayings, from the obvious to the more obscure — often pegged to a certain product or for a specific use. Chances are if it's a symbol that's officially used by the Marines, worn on a uniform, or pasted on a placard in front of a battalion office somewhere, then the Corps owns it... and if it doesn't already, it probably will soon. Those trademarks include:
- Tell that to the Marines!
- The Few. The Proud.
- Devil Pup
- Marine Girlfriend
- Marine Mom
- Marine Baby
- OOH RAH
- OORAH! (Sorry, guys: Alternate spelling doesn't get you out of trouble.)
When someone attempts to claim legal ownership of one of the Corps' registered trademarks, the service files a letter of protest with the United States Patent and Trademark Office.
Occasionally businesses will register Marine Corps-affiliated trademarks — like a product using the Marine name in its title, or one modeled after the service's “Semper Fidelis/Semper Fi" theme — which is a no-go, whether it's malicious or an honest accident.
“It'll have our name in it, but not just the name by itself," O'Haver said, “and we'll have to address those."
Who's getting in trouble for this?
When it comes to the demographics of violators, it's split between civilians and veterans, O'Haver said, adding that many of the violations occur in online marketplaces — where vendors can display and hawk their wares, often with minimal oversight. Curtailing the sale of unlawfully branded military products was part of the rationale behind an agreement between Walmart and the Department of Defense, announced Nov. 10, to only sell legally licensed military-themed merchandise.
Many violators, O'Haver said, “are private companies that might just be a hat company or t-shirt company, and they unknowingly think that launching a military line is something to boost sales, and they might not realize that it requires prior licensing and permission." Occasionally, political groups and dark-money fundraisers try unsuccessfully to glom off the Corps' good name, too — including one political action committee run by the current secretary of the interior.
But the other big group of offenders, O'Haver said, “is going to be from the veteran pool or family members."
It's the latter group — especially Marine veterans-turned-entrepreneurs — that often reacts the most strongly to news that their esprit de corps has drawn fire from the Green Machine.
When Morin got his call from the Marine Corps Trademark Licensing Office in 2012, he said “the initial shock" was that the call came so late in the game: “Okay, well, we've been doing this for a decade, you know?"
When Morin started his business, there was no Marine Corps Trademark Licensing Office, scanning patent filings for offenders; instead, the Marines simply required individuals who were using service insignia to request permission in writing, under the 1984 statute Title 10 USC 7881 — not exactly a proactive measure. But in the post-surge years of the 2010s — with troop drawdowns on the horizon and scores of Marines ditching MARPAT cammies for mil-themed business ventures — the Marine Corps wanted a greater say in who could turn a profit off its reputation and how.
The service had to suddenly contend with “this whole gamut of symbols they didn't want associated with the eagle, globe, and anchor, and whatever the logo may be," Morin told Task & Purpose.
Getting your branding right, with input from the service
Though he was initially put off by the bad news, Morin decided to work with the Marines to reach an agreement. The parties were able to get a few edgier products licensed, like coins with “skulls set alongside the EGA" — the kind of stuff “Marines would actually like," Morin said.
“A lot of other companies were so turned off to them, and hanging up the phone and not even listening, that we kind of said, 'Alright, we need to embrace this,'" he told Task & Purpose. “It's not going anywhere.'"
Another veteran entrepreneur, Charles Lovern, who runs Uniformed Scrapbooks of America, took a more proactive approach, reaching out to the service before he launched his military-themed scrapbook business. The inspiration for the company was a gift Lovern's wife made him after his 2006 Iraq deployment: a scrapbook encased in one of his old uniforms.
“I took one look at it and said, 'This is phenomenal, we need to make this available for all service members,'" Lovern, who left the Marines in 2007, told Task & Purpose. “So we kind of tucked it away, and then years later, I literally got up one morning and said, 'I'm going to get a patent on that.'"
Lovern knew he needed to check with the Corps next, because he was literally using a military uniform (and the service's proprietary camouflage pattern) for a personal business venture. “I just figured you needed to get it approved," he said. “I never really questioned [the trademark law], but from the beginning I've been 100% on board."
Grand theft, EGA
While that may seem like common sense, it's not always a conclusion well-intending businesses reach on their own. And then there are the other businesses that sometimes attempt to register a pre-existing trademark or a strikingly familiar one:
Two proposed trademarks featuring EGAs "simulations" the Marine Corps Licensing Office had to file letters of protest against, through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, this year. Courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps Trademark Licensing Office
In December 2017, O'Haver provided Task & Purpose with these images as examples of proposed trademarks submitted to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office featuring a different take on the iconic Corps insignia. “Those are just from this year," she said, “and those are individuals who have actually tried to seek ownership, as if they were the creator of that insignia, which was of course based on our own brand."
The Marines, you see, don't just want a royalty from other people's businesses: They want to make sure their symbols remain theirs, undiluted by market tastes.
“If you have an entity that tries to create a variation of the eagle, globe, and anchor, and they are successful in registering it at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, they could essentially send the Marine Corps a cease-and-desist. … So, we're very vigilant at the trademark office."
For vets like Lovern and Morin, that's the upside. Sure, the government having a say in how business owners design their merch can be frustrating, but those same regulations also prevent people from putting Corps emblems on a t-shirt and slapping the phrase “baby killer" next to it before shilling it on a pop-up e-store.
Symbols do matter to the “always faithful" Marines, after all. “I think it's important to make sure those aren't being used in a derogatory way, especially now, with how fast negativity can just be vomited all over the internet," Morin said, adding that they “stand for something. They stand for pride. They stand for camaraderie, and the brotherhood you used to be a part of. I'm sure everyone in every branch has that same feeling."
A pretty familiar-looking trademark design that a vet-run business unsuccessfully tried to register with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, this year. Courtesy of U.S. Marine Corps Trademark Licensing Office
And the Corps is concerned it could lose control of those symbols' meanings if a trademark troll's filing slips through. “If you have an entity that tries to create a variation of the eagle, globe, and anchor, and they are successful in registering it at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office," O'Haver said, “they could essentially send the Marine Corps a cease-and-desist. … So, we're very vigilant at the trademark office."
Companies that want to go about it legally can apply to license a Marine Corps trademark for their business. If the application is approved, the service will propose a licensing agreement and rate, which can range from $50 for small businesses to thousands of dollars for larger corporations.
The fees go toward the costs of trademark registration through the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the costs to run the Marine Corps licensing office. Any leftovers make their way to the Corps' Morale Welfare and Recreation programs. Since 2010, the service has collected $15.3 million in fees and funnelled nearly $4 million to the service's many MWR programs, according to O'Haver.
The other completely free-to-use Marine icon
Of course, not all of this may make sense to former Marines out there in the shark-infested business world who believe that the one thing they earned — in months of arduous training at Parris Island, San Diego, or Quantico, and maybe on the battlefields beyond — is, well, the right to claim the title.
“I think it's important to make sure those aren't being used in a derogatory way, especially now, with how fast negativity can just be vomited all over the internet."
“I understand that when you separate from the service, you don't. Not really. That pride is still there," O'Haver said. “Once a Marine, always a Marine."
To ease the sting some former devil dogs might feel when they realize their dream of opening a “Semper Fi Funnel Cake" food truck with EGA-shaped pastries might result in a hefty fee, the service has an alternative solution:
“We developed two insignias — a retirement insignia and a veteran insignia — that you can put that on your business card or the side of your truck," O'Haver said. “You can use that commercially to represent that you are a proud Marine."
After all, she said, “That's what most Marines want ... to convey their pride in service."
A list of frequently asked questions, guidelines for the use of registered Marine Corps trademarks, and details on how to apply for a license, can be found on the Marine Corps Trademark Licensing Program website.
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