Graduates of The Ohio State University (“Ohio State”) are familiar with fans and supporters (and sometimes, Michigan fans) placing an emphasis on the “THE” when saying the school’s name. But the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s (“USPTO”) recent decision1 to grant federal trademark registration No. 6,763,118 to Ohio State for the most popular word in the English language2 has garnered much mainstream media attention and confusion. This blog post provides a brief overview of the background and potential implications of this registration.
How did Ohio State register such a common word?
Ohio State first applied to register the word THE in 2019 in connection with Clothing, namely, t-shirts, baseball caps and hats3. The application was initially refused4 by the USPTO because: (1) a third-party clothing company had already filed an application for the word THE beforehand; and (2) because the mark was “merely ornamental” (in other words, the USPTO believed that THE did not function to indicate the source of Ohio State’s clothing goods). Ohio State eventually overcame those issues by submitting evidence and images to demonstrate that THE had source-indicating function, and by entering into a consent agreement with the third-party clothing company5. With these issues both resolved, and no additional refusals or challenges being raised, the USPTO granted a federal registration to Ohio State for THE on June 21, 2022, to many commentators’ surprise.