If ‘the’ is worth effort — Go Bucks


We live in the middle of Buckeye Country. People who have never set foot on the Ohio State campus fly Ohio State flags. Cars are painted like big Buckeye helmets. When Ohio State plays Michigan, there hardly is any traffic in town because people are all inside watching the game.

I guess I should be careful about what I state about Ohio State — excuse me, The Ohio State University. I have a daughter with multiple degrees from the school and lots of friends who either went there or wish they had.

But I just can’t resist commenting on the university’s latest highly publicized marketing effort. Last week, the school asked the government for a trademark for the “The” from The Ohio State University. It’s not quite as bizarre as it seems — it would not be like OSU (that’s Ohio State, not Oklahoma State, which is another trademark story) would hold sole rights to the word “the.” The idea was a certain kind of “The” in really big letters used on T-shirts and hats and other clothing would belong to Ohio State. At least, I think that’s THE idea.

Ohio State’s use of “The” in its name already is viewed with some resentment by other state-funded Ohio schools. After all, there are 14 state universities in Ohio with a bunch more branches and community colleges. Ohio University was quick to point out that it was Ohio’s first state school. It was 70 years old when Ohio State finally opened its doors. The whole “The” thing is a little bit of a sore point.

Back in 2017, Ohio State had a big fight with Oklahoma State over the letters “OSU.” The two schools eventually reached an agreement. I’m not sure what Oregon State, another OSU, is allowed to do and I might have just violated some kind of trademark agreement by including Oregon State in this story.

It’s kind of a shame Ohio State seems to find its way into headlines for various football-related scandals and odd copyright battles. In recent years, the school has worked hard to improve its academic reputation. Back when I was a kid, we used to joke that all you needed to get into Ohio State was to prove you were still breathing. It’s not like that anymore; Ohio State is a much more selective place these days.

I guess the big “The” controversy will blow over pretty quickly. It doesn’t seem OSU (and I don’t mean Oregon) is likely to get what it wants in this case, and even if it did the school would have to spend a lot of time and effort in keeping the trademark valid.

Lots of words we use today as common nouns started out as trademarks. Aspirin, escalator, kerosene, laundromat, thermos, videotape and many other words became used so much that they lost their copyright. That even happened to heroin, which at one time as a trademark of the Bayer Co. And if you’re in Russia, when you say spidola you’re talking about a transistor radio. It used to be a trademark of a Latvian company, but that didn’t last long. I’m not sure trademarks had much use back in the old Soviet Union in the 1960s.

On the other hand, Kleenex, Band-Aid, Bubble Wrap, Fiberglass, Frisbee, Popsicle, Super Glue and Realtor, among others, have managed to keep their trademarks even though most of us use those names like they’re common nouns. Companies spend millions to protect names like these.

I can’t see “The” being worth the effort. I’ve seen the THE T-shirts and I’m not impressed. On the other hand, now that the word is out and the fight is on, I imagine sales of the T-shirts are going to go through THE roof. All loyal Ohioans will want to antagonize the rest of the world (especially Michigan) by proudly wearing our THE gear. Who knows, maybe this whole thing was cooked up by the OSU business school as a lesson in marketing and way to earn some extra cash for the big Beat Michigan party at the end of the year.

What can I say? Go Bucks.