In 1972 an out-of-work actor named Daniel Odell (sometimes called Odum) attempted to trademark his distinctive basso voice, which some have said was a precursor to the Darth Vader-like tones of James Earl Jones. Odell’s application was rejected by the Patent & Trademark Office on the grounds that he was not yet famous enough to merit any kind of protection, and that his voice — while distinctive — did not necessarily serve to identify him and only him.
When I first heard this, I had to pause, and then I nodded in recognition as I realized that however trite it may seem it is nonetheless true that your voice is almost certainly not unique. Out there, somewhere in the vast sea of billions of souls, there is another voice just like yours, a doppelganger dulcet tone owned by a Chinese teen who hasn’t yet managed to pass from elementary English to the more advanced studies that would bring his voice to full fruition (and your possible attention), but instead prefers an archaic French that you, poor American, are unlikely to ever comprehend. He’s out there, your vocal twin, but the odds are billions to one against you ever running into him.
That the PTO would recognize this possibility as an impediment to granting a trademark seemed odd to me, however, given the office’s historical penchant for rolling over and liberally granting licenses to marks that not even an addled alderman would deem unique. Especially pique-inducing are the obvious modern day capitulations to capitalism, such as McDonald’s largely successful efforts to trademark every word that begins with a Mc, and Facebook’s already notorious quest to gain ownership rights over not only “book” but “Face” as well. Surely no reasonable soul could in good faith ever see fit to take such basic nouns out of the public lexicon, but then again the PTO is no home to the normal. Such corporate steamroller applications are so ubiquitous nowadays that we as a people are as jaded by them as we are by efforts to warn us of the continuing attempts to mine more and more of our personal data. The world we live in is so complacent now, stuffed full of pizza in front of the TV, that I feel compelled to raise the hue and cry because it should be alarming to us as a people when any company tries to assert property rights in our common heritage. Can you imagine a world in which even the look on your face can be trademarked, your tongue tied with words you can no longer freely utter? Words, my friends, are as much our legacy and treasure as is the genetic code (which Genentech is trying to patent as we speak), and should be protected with every iota of our strength. Some days it seems to me as though common sense has fled the roost along with common decency, and that the only thing we have in common as a free people is a very common desire to make a buck. No one cares if we lose face® to rapacious corporate mimes.
About the only thing we find it impossible to patent lately is the concept of making money, though I am reasonably confident that Google is trying to claim it as a business method patent. Hence their absurd interview questions (“Construe pi to the 17th decimal, please. Now build a tetrahedron using only your mind”) which are designed to convince the world that the intellegentsia who work there are innocents that only care for your welfare, and that greed and avarice live far far away in some province you’ve never heard of. Possibly in Heilongjiang with the Chinese kid who has your voice.
I am a commercial litigator and intellectual property lawyer in Orange County. Although my practice encompasses a wide variety of business disputes, I have a particular fondness for, and am prone to wax philosophical on, the subjects of copyright and trademark infringement in music, literature, art, and film.