Some words and symbols are so commonplace it seems impossible a company could claim exclusive rights to them. Christianity’s central figure might be one of them.
But according to the U.S. Patent And Trademark Office, Jesus Jeans has owned the word “Jesus” since 2007. According to the Wall Street Journal, the Italian company owned by BasicNet has fended off similarly named clothing startups ever since, though it is somewhat more charitable to churches.
The Wall Street Journal’s Jacob Gersham profiles how Jesus Jeans protects its original image:
Before taking on Jesus Surfed, Jesus Jeans objected to “Jesus First,” “Sweet Jesus,” and “Jesus Couture,” among others, which abandoned their trademark efforts. In some cases, when met with resistance, Jesus Jeans warned that it could sue for damages.
Attorneys for Jesus Jeans say they are just trying to protect the value of their brand—no different from Nike’s claim over the winged goddess of victory.
“If somebody—small church or even a big church—wants to use ‘Jesus’ for printing a few T-shirts, we don’t care,” said Domenico Sindico, the general counsel for intellectual property at BasicNet SpA, a publicly traded company based in Turin, Italy, that owns Jesus Jeans and the Kappa sportswear brand.
But when companies like Mr. Anton’s seek to commercialize their products, “that’s a concern,” he said.
It is unlikely that Jesus Jeans actually has a lawful claim to a monopoly on the name “Jesus.” As a federal judge explained in a decision holding that Walmart does not own the trademark to a yellow smiley face, trademarks only cover “distinctive” marks. Thus, a common name like “Jesus” could only be trademarked if it became “associated in the minds of the public with the products or services offered by the proprietor of the mark.” We’re going to go out on a limb and say that when most people hear the name “Jesus,” they associate it with something other than blue jeans.
Nevertheless, for most small businesses, there is little hope of matching larger corporations in intellectual property battles, even when it is over a 2000-year-old figure. The mere threat of an expensive lawsuit can be enough to force small companies to back down.