LeBron Gets the Last Word

Actually, he’ll own it. A primer on trademarks.

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LeBron James, basketball legend and entrepreneur, is pursuing a trademark for the phrase “Shut Up and Dribble.”

Trademark Words? How? Why?

Fox News host Laura Ingraham, spoke the phrase in 2018, in an unsolicited response to James and other pro athletes speaking out against Donald Trump. 

“It’s always unwise to seek political advice from someone who gets paid $100 million a year to bounce a ball,” she said. “As someone once said, shut up and dribble.”

A video of Ingraham’s flagrant foul, retweeted and responded to by King James, has over 30 million views. The Lakers star owned the moment then, and if this trademark application is approved, his athlete empowerment brand will literally own it — this time as intellectual property.

Tricks of the trademark

A trademark is a recognizable feature of a brand that distinguishes it from others — legally, and in the eyes of consumers. This recognition can make a trademark valuable. It could be a word or phrase, logo, product name, or design element; it could even be a distinctive scent, texture, or sound. (In the U.S., the ® symbol denotes an officially registered trademark, while ™ is used to stake a claim to an unregistered one.)

These recognizable elements are integral to a brand’s identity, even synonymous with it. Think of the Nike “swoosh,” or Apple’s bitten fruit logo. Anyone is free to sell their own competing shoes or smartphones, but if they plan to use imagery reminiscent of these iconic symbols, they should expect to hear pretty quickly from lawyers. (Unless the use is for parody…)

Use it or lose it

Proving trademark ownership can be thorny, so for LeBron, this is not a slam dunk. 

Even huge brands can struggle to prove and protect their trademarks. Take McDonald’s: in 2019, the burger behemoth lost its fight to defend the Big Mac name in the EU. The European Union Intellectual Property Office ruled the company failed to prove “genuine use” of the trademark. It was a major victory for Irish chain, Supermac’s, and a major trolling opportunity for Burger King.

LeBron’s claim, though, is personal, and millions of people are cheering him on.