I mean, I don’t doubt you.
We can all bring good things to life. But can you use the tagline “we bring good things to life” now that GE doesn’t use it anymore? Trademark rights do exist, but the gray area after trademarks expire is what is so interesting. This brings me to the point of this post: what happens once taglines are retired? (Disclaimer: This post has a lot of questions. But there are some answers!)
The term of a federal trademark can last indefinitely if whatever you are trademarking continues to get used. So, a tagline could be trademarked for its first ten year term and then renewed continually. Bringing it back to GE, the “we bring good things to life” line was used from 1972-2003 until they announced “Imagination at work.” (Sidebar: I LOVED those commercials, especially this one in 2005.) But GE let it be known that they were going in a different direction. So does that make it up for grabs? Or is it GE’s forever? I personally find it hard to believe that a company can own a phrase forever if they are not using it anymore.
Here are a few other examples of tagline “afterlives” that I’m curious about (thanks to this great Forbes link):
- Don’t leave home without it. (American Express)
- Think different (Apple)
- It Takes a Lickin’, But Keeps on Tickin’ (Timex)
- Tastes great, less filling (Miller) – Resurrected in 2008, but what if someone had used it in the meantime?
- Like a Rock (Chevy)
So now for the multitude of questions: Where do these taglines now sit in the world? Can they ever be used again? If you had the opportunity, would you dare touch one? Or create one that is similar?
To find some answers I asked a Milwaukee attorney who has some experience in trademarks. She explained that in addition to the general rule for trademarks in the United States as stated above, there is also the concept of “residual goodwill.” Residual goodwill means that trademarks can retain their significance as a trademark if consumers will still recognize the mark as designating by a company even if the trademark is not in use. So, it’s kind of like having good sportsmanship in the creative world.
With all these rules and understandings in place, it seems like a company will probably never use another company’s famous tagline, even if decades have passed, but there’s always a chance. And I can’t help but wonder if someday a company will be adamant that THEIR company can bring good things to life in a different way than GE. (And sorry to keep picking on GE, but I’m most intrigued by this one since it recently went away.) Will GE be insulted? Flattered? Legally obligated to sue?
I guess the only way to find out is to keep watching.
But I want to end on another thing I DO know. The more I think about what happens when a company is done using a tagline, the more I see that a tagline really needs to be smart and creative to have true staying power. If a company can get people to know who they are from a tagline that’s they are not using anymore years down the line, well, I’d say they brought good things to life.
(Still interested? I also discovered there’s a blog solely dedicated to law and creativity. Check it out! http://www.duetsblog.com/)
Erica Gordon is a Marketing Associate at Clear Verve and works part-time at a Milwaukee area nonprofit. She recently received her Communication MA from Marquette University. Follow Erica on Twitter @erica_g.