Ohio State Bucks won a trademark right for the word “the”

If you’ve ever watched Monday Night Football, you’ve likely heard former Ohio State soccer players proudly proclaim their school as “Ohio State University,” emphasizing the word “the” pronounced with an “e” like “thee.”

This simple article has become a part of Ohio culture and the university has successfully registered a trademark for “THE.” The brand, which was initially applied for in August 2019, took three years to gain approval and will apply to any apparel and apparel related application.

So, while the Buckeyes don’t have the word “the,” they are one of the most recognizable brands out there.

Josh Gerben is a trademark attorney and founder of Gerben Intellectual Property in Washington, DC, who noted that it is common for universities to protect their logos and slogans, but it is unusual to trademark such an ambiguous word.

“You can’t have the word for everything, so they don’t have the word,” Gerbin said. “This was something that they felt was apparently important enough to spend time and effort registering and eventually being able to monitor the market from anyone who might use that word as branded clothing.”

Clothing label Marc Jacobs has also applied for a word trademark, so it’s possible, according to Gerben, that Ohio State could take a defensive stance by applying for the trademark as well. If Marc Jacobs obtained the trademark, they would have the power to demand that the state of Ohio stop using it on their clothing.

“On the flip side of that, you sometimes see people filing trademark applications for things they might not have tried before because they see the mark being used in the marketplace,” Gerbin said. “It’s common for people to go online and try to sell fake items with college logos and phrases and things like that. Even on a professional level, you’ll see people selling these kind of items and so they might get a registered trademark so they can go to platforms like Etsy or Amazon or Anywhere items are sold, remove those listings.”

It does not detract from the fact that branding this word is unique.

As with everything in college football, I entered the competitions. When it was first announced that Ohio State was applying for the trademark in 2019, the University of Michigan Twitter account ridiculed the idea by posting a picture of the word “who” with TM as a caption.

Gerben said you would be hard-pressed to find another brand application by a university for a word like this and that universities usually focus on names, logos, and slogans.

However, the brand’s release does not guarantee that Ohio State will be the only university that can use “THE” on clothing. During the first five years in which a trademark has been registered, another party can file a petition for cancellation on the grounds that this does not operate as a trademark.

“There is an argument in the trademark community that words like these may not work as trademarks,” Gerbin said. “In other words, the brand is supposed to identify the source of the product. So, if you see Nike on the side of a box, you know that Nike made this shoe and there is an argument to be made there, if someone wants it.”

It seems unlikely that anyone would challenge Ohio State to use the word, and while the university technically doesn’t own the word, it can now say it has one of the most unique brands in sports.