Intellectual Property Gone Awry

Intellectual property laws were designed to do two things (1) encourage innovation and (2) promote economic growth. Rather than get into the problems with modern intellectual property law, and how far it has strayed from its second purpose, I thought it would be fun to look at some of the more recent examples of IP gone bad.

“π.” trademarked. Calculate circumference at your own risk.

That’s right. Brooklyn artist Paul Ingrisano received a trademark for the Greek symbol pi, which as we all know, is a mathematical constant (3.14159…) used for many important calculations. Ingrisano was selling shirts with the symbol followed by a period – π.

Typically, a trademark has to be distinctive in order to qualify for registration. It’s unclear why the trademark office considered π distinctive enough, even with a period at the end. But it gets worse. Ingrisano is not the first person to exploit the use of the universal mathematical symbol by putting it on a t-shirt. So he sent a cease and desist letter (with demand for profit accounting) to Zazzle, the online t-shirt company, which happened to sell shirts featuring π, even though they didn’t have the period. Ingrisano’s attorney considered them confusingly similar to the trademark .

The worst part of the story is that Zazzle actually banned use of the 3,000 Greek letter on its products. While they have since reinstated them on the site, the fact that they had to shut down shows that something has gone amiss.

Wired – This Guy Trademarked the Symbol for Pi and Took Away Our Geeky T-Shirts

Amazon’s Patent for Photos on a White Background.

Amazon has been making news lately, and not for anything good. First their bullying of publishers using their site, and then a patent on photography. Amazon has received a patent for taking pictures of products in front of a white background. I’m sure they will use it responsibly. For further analysis, see this great explanation by Stephen Colbert:


Local Governments Getting in on the Action

Even governments are getting in on the action. Typically, governments cannot trademark their official seals, since it is like public property. However, that did not stop County of Union, New Jersey from demanding a public access TV show critical of the local government to stop using the symbol. This story does have a happier ending though. First, the USPTO denied the county’s trademark application as being illegal. Second, the court hearing the case found that there was no trademark, and even if there had been, the show’s use wasn’t infringing.

Volokh Conspiracy – County of Union (N.J.) tries to use trademark law to stop critic from using county seal on her blog