A Poetics of Trademark Law

45 Pages Posted: 3 Apr 2022 Last revised: 23 Jan 2024

See all articles by Alexandra J. Roberts

Alexandra J. Roberts

Northeastern University - School of Law

Date Written: March 31, 2022


Poetry and trademarks have a lot in common. Both use language to persuade. Both aspire to say much with little. Both deal in ambiguity, though perhaps only poetry is content to reside in it permanently. While poetry is associated with education and erudition, trademarks are considered a lingua franca, readily understood by all. But reading a trademark remains, in the words of Laura Heymann, “at heart, an interpretive exercise.” Poetic devices like rhyme and alliteration play a role in what trademarks mean and how readers of trademarks can locate and articulate that meaning, but their use and interpretation have received little attention in doctrine or scholarship. While applicants and litigants sometimes allege that their marks incorporate poetic devices in support of a claim of distinctiveness, unitariness, or similarity (or the lack thereof), and factfinders sometimes grant credence to those arguments, both groups tend to use literary terms imprecisely. And that imprecision matters.

This Article explores the poetics of trademarks. It calls upon several overlapping senses of the word “poetics”: a study of rhetorical devices; a strategy for interpretation; and a structuring principle undergirding trademark law itself. It defines a number of commonly used poetic devices, offers examples from both poetry and trademarks, and discusses federal court and USPTO decisions that consider their effects on protectability or infringement. Poetic devices have the potential to guide factfinders to deeper insight about word marks. The devices discussed offer ways to articulate what and how a mark means—its denotations, connotations, rhythm, music—specifically and precisely. By treating a trademark as a tiny poem, we make space to honor its complexity.

Keywords: trademarks, intellectual property, uspto, poetics, law & literature, registration, infringement, unitary, likelihood of confusion

Suggested Citation

Roberts, Alexandra Jane, A Poetics of Trademark Law (March 31, 2022). Berkeley Technology Law Journal, Vol. 38, No. 1, 2023, Northeastern University School of Law Research Paper No. 450, Available at SSRN: https://ssrn.com/abstract=4071850

Alexandra Jane Roberts (Contact Author)

Northeastern University - School of Law ( email )

416 Huntington Avenue
Boston, MA 02115
United States

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