July 11, 2023
Who Owns Taco Tuesday?
Did you know that every time you say “Taco Tuesday,” you’re using someone’s trademark?
At least for right now… But a new legal petition is looking to change that. In May, Mexican fast-food behemoth Taco Bell filed a proceeding with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (“USPTO”) against Taco John’s, a Wyoming-based fast-food chain that, unbeknownst to the average burrito lover, actually trademarked the phrase “Taco Tuesday” way back in 1989.
Taco Bell’s petition is a rare work of legal writing — written, at times, in colloquial English, it has moments where it’s even pretty funny. One extract: “People like tacos on Tuesday. They just do. It’s even fun to say: ‘Taco Tuesday.’ Tacos have the unique ability to bring people together and bring joy to their lives on an otherwise mediocre day of the week.” (For another great example of this kind of “brand voice” legal writing, see this Netflix cease and desist letter.) In support of its campaign, Taco Bell has even enlisted LeBron James, who himself tried to trademark the phrase “Taco Tuesday” in 2019, but had his application rejected because the USPTO found the term to be too common to serve as a trademark.
Suffice it to say that Taco John’s, which currently owns the trademark for “Taco Tuesday” in every state except New Jersey (don’t ask; that’s a topic for another blog post), is not amused. It responded to Taco Bell’s petition to cancel its trademark by noting, among other things, that Taco Bell is not seeking to cancel Taco John’s trademark in order to bring people happiness, but rather “in an effort to sell more tacos.”
In a statement released by Taco Bell, James — the NBA’s all-time leading scorer and self-appointed taco promoter — said, “‘Taco Tuesday’ is a tradition that everyone should be able to celebrate. All restaurants, all families, all businesses — everybody…it’s a celebration that nobody should own.”
Taco John’s will probably lose the right to prevent others from using the phrase “Taco Tuesday” because, as the USPTO pointed out in connection with James’ application, the phrase has become ubiquitous and, as such, has lost its ability to function as a trademark. This is what’s called “genericide,” when trademarks cease to be associated with a brand and the brand loses its rights.
However this spicy little kerfuffle pans out, it’s a lesson in what trademark owners should and can do to prevent genericide from happening to them (NB: the following tips may be most productively read while enjoying a chalupa supreme):
- Keep in mind the purpose of a trademark. Trademarks are intended to indicate the source of a good or service. When, for example, the Xerox Corporation started making photocopiers, the intent was that a consumer who saw the word “Xerox” on a copy machine would know that the machine was made by the Xerox Corporation and not some other manufacturer like Pitney Bowes.
- Use your mark as a trademark and make sure others do too. Problems arise when a trademark is used to describe the thing or the service itself instead of a specifically-branded thing or service. For example, Xerox ran into trouble when consumers started using the word “Xerox” to refer to both the process of copying a document and the copied document itself, instead of a machine made by Xerox or a copy made by a Xerox machine. Once upon a time, the company addressed this through a clever ad campaign informing consumers “when you use ‘Xerox’ the way you use ‘aspirin,’ we get a headache.” (This was a clever play on the fact that “aspirin” was once a brand name but became generic.) Their goal was to get people to use the word “photocopy” instead of “Xerox,” and while the impact on conversation in the copy room is certainly debatable, Xerox maintained its trademark.
- Have a generic noun ready to go. When you develop your trademark make sure you have a generic noun to be used with the trademark when communicating your brand to consumers, competitors, and the media. For example, Xerox is careful to say “Xerox photocopiers,” not “Xeroxes.”
- Enforce your rights. It’s great to get a trademark, but that’s just half of the battle. If a trademark ceases to be associated solely with the company that owns it, the mark no longer identifies the source of the goods or services. This means that to keep a trademark, the party that owns it has to constantly stop others from using its trademark and not wait for years until someone disputes their right to it. Stopping others can be through sending cease and desist letters, bringing an action to enforce trademark rights, or opposing efforts by another company to register a similar trademark.
- Use the Ⓡ symbol. This lets others know that a word or a phrase has been registered as a trademark. But remember: if the word or phrase hasn’t been registered as a trademark with the USPTO, you can’t use the Ⓡ symbol.
- Keep detailed records. This includes records of your advertising costs, revenue figures, and unsolicited press mentions, all of which help to prove “acquired distinctiveness.”
However the taco case turns out, rest easy knowing nothing can stop us from eating tacos on Tuesday . . . or on any other day.