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It was bound to happen. People across the world are trying to trademark QAnon, the American far-right conspiracy theory baselessly claiming that Donald Trump is saving the world from a group of elite satanist paedophiles.
According to data from the World Intellectual Property Organisation, a UN agency dealing with patents, copyrights, and trademark, seven applications to register “QAnon” or “Q Anon” as a trademark have been filed since the conspiracy theory debuted on 4Chan in October 2017. Of these, two have been successful – one in Australia and one in Germany – one has been dismissed, and the remaining four are pending. Most applications declare the intention to use the word – the pseudonym of the conspiracy theory’s initiator and now a byword for the whole delusion – as a brand for clothes, hats, coffee mugs, gadgets; some also aimed at registering the trademark to provide entertainment products and consultancy services.
As QAnon goes global, spreading to the UK, Germany, Italy, and gaining an estimated 4.5 million followers worldwide, it is easy to see why entrepreneurial individuals might want to appropriate the brand and monetise it.
But the United States, where QAnon was born and most of its followers are based, is also the country where trademarking it might prove toughest. “Every time there’s a cultural phenomenon, someone will try and register the associated phrase as a trademark,” says Rebecca Tushnet, a professor of law at Harvard Law School. “In the US, it usually fails.”
That is because trademarks are supposed to work as indications of source: a swoosh on a pair of sneakers will tell you that those shoes were made by Nike rather than Reebok; an apple on a laptop will remind you that your computer was designed in Cupertino. In contrast, a QAnon logo on a T-shirt would not bring to mind any particular stylist. “The US Patent and Trademark Office [USPTO], which is the US entity that scrutinises these things, is likely to say: ‘This is just a name of a dispersed movement’,” Tushnet explains. “It doesn’t tell anything about the source of the product.”
Many bids to trademark political slogans such as Black Lives Matter failed for exactly that reason. And the same rationale appears to have doomed several attempts to trademark QAnon-adjacent formulas in the US. Jason Stringo, a Texas-based man who applied to trademark “Q Anon”, alongside related slogans “We Are the Storm” and “WWG1WGA”, ended up abandoning all three of his applications. In a letter refusing the registration of WWG1WGA, the USPTO wrote that the battle cry was so widespread that potential customers “would not perceive it as a mark that identifies the source of applicant’s goods but rather only as conveying an informational message”.
The most recent – and still pending – application for registering “QAnon” as a US trademark was filed on August 21, 2020 by Napoleon Yancey, an attorney and the owner of Tennessee-based Napoleon Law Firm. Yancey says he has filed the application on behalf of a client, who wished to remain anonymous. “My client’s ideals do not align with that of QAnon; however, they have identified a potentially valuable asset and would like to obtain the property rights,” Yancey writes in an email. “The client intends to meet all requirements necessary by the trademark office to secure the mark.”
Tushnet thinks that Yancey’s application will likely go down the same route as Stringo’s. “I rate the chances of this working as slim to none,” she says. That is regardless of who Yancey’s client might be. Even if the person who allegedly hired Yancey were the person who concocted the QAnon persona in 2017, they still would have a hard time registering it as a trademark for a clothing line, as the application intends to do.
“There would be at least a possibility for that person, but only for a limited set of things,” Tushnet says. “In theory, QAnon himself or herself – and I’m guessing him – could claim trademark rights in providing conspiracy theories. Entertainment services or informational services would be the usual thing.”
According to Dev Gangjee, a professor of intellectual property law at the University of Oxford, a successful scenario is not only remote but impossible. “Even if somebody originally invents a phrase, but then it quickly gets swept up by the general public, and it starts being used to talk about a movement or a set of ideas, then it doesn’t matter if you came up with it,” Gangjee says. “You’ve lost it.”
Reached on the phone, Yancey says that he does not believe his client is the inventor of the QAnon personage; he also says his client is not linked to Jim and Ron Watkins, a father-and-son duo who run the 8kun online forum – a QAnonist stronghold – and who have been often been accused of having ties with QAnon’s originators. Jim Watkins did not reply to messages sent to his Instagram account by the time of publication.
But not all is lost for those planning to trademark QAnon. “Most countries don’t have the kind of substantive examination process that the US does,” says Tushnet. “There are a lot of places where it could, in theory, function as a trademark.”
That has already happened. In Germany, the owner of a children’s event company called René Reimann successfully managed to get the word trademarked in October 2018, alongside QArmy, and WWG1WGA. Reimann, who seems at least sincere in his support for the QAnon fantasy, [link url=”https://www.worldtrademarkreview.com/brand-management/qanontm-the-global-efforts-trademark-far-right-movement”]told trade publication World Trademark Review/link] that he hopes the profit from selling QAnon-branded gear might be used to “do a lot of good with the Q-Story”.
In Australia, someone called Kane Oliver has owned the trademark since July 2018. Other applications are pending in France, and before the EU’s Intellectual Property Office. QAnon profiteers in Morocco might have a hard time, though: there, QAnon has been registered since 2011 as a brand for hardware and machinery.
Gian Volpicelli is WIRED’s politics editor. He tweets from @Gmvolpi
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