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The Ohio State University wants to trademark its favorite word: ‘The’

It's The Ohio State University. (Angie Wang/Associated Press)

Ohio State is serious about calling itself “The” Ohio State University. The grammatical article is right there on many of the school’s seal, logos and signs. Now the university has gotten so serious about that three-letter word that it has sought to trademark it.

In one of the sillier sports filings since Tom Brady pursued a “Tom Terrific” trademark in June, officials filed Application No. 88571984 with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office last week, seeking a trademark for the word “THE” to use it on items including T-shirts and hats. The idea is to market scarlet items with “THE” in gigantic letters, with the smaller Ohio State logo beneath it. Josh Gerben, a Washington, D.C., trademark lawyer, unearthed the application, which the school — sorry, THE school — said was submitted to protect assets of “significant value.”

However, there could be a snag. Marc Jacobs, the apparel company, beat Ohio State to the punch when it comes to that three-letter word. Its application for “THE” (as in THE BACKPACK MARC JACOBS) was approved by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in June, but that remains under review, according to the Jacobs application. Marc Jacobs would have priority in the trademark because of the filing date, according to Gerben.

Gerben believes that OSU could receive an initial refusal of its application because a trademark for a brand of clothing “must be used in a trademarked fashion,” he said in a video on Twitter, referring to that principle as “Trademark 101.”

“In other words, it has to be used on tagging or labeling for the products,” he said. “In this case, just putting the word ‘the’ on the front of a hat or on the front of a shirt is not sufficient trademark use.”

OSU (or is it TOSU?) has maneuvered through potential trademark roadblocks in the past. For instance, it tried to trademark “OSU” on clothing and apparel in 2017 and was met with an objection from a different OSU — Oklahoma State University. The two schools ended up signing an agreement that allows both to use the acronym on a national basis, according to the Columbus Dispatch. Last fall, Ohio State had 150 trademarks in 17 countries, in addition to what the Dispatch said was “a number” of pending applications. It also had trademarked the names of former coaches Urban Meyer and Woody Hayes.

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In the meantime, Ohio State joins a list of other attention-grabbing trademark attempts. Tom Brady ticked off New York Mets fans in June when his TEB Capital Management company sought to trademark “Tom Terrific,” a nickname more commonly associated with Tom Seaver, the Mets’ Hall of Fame pitcher. The New England Patriots quarterback later said his intention was “to try to keep” people from using a nickname that he doesn’t like.

In the years since Pat Riley famously held the trademark to “3-Peat,” other representatives and teams have rushed to the USPTO.

“Over the years, folks in the sports world have certainly attempted to protect pet phrases and things of this nature with trademark filings,” Gerben said in a phone interview. “I will say it’s probably a little more common these days because of the idea of branded merchandise. All the branding around sports teams, and athletes themselves has really exploded in the last 10 or 15 years, and so you do see more of this happening."

Take Zion Williamson, the No. 1 pick in June’s NBA draft by the New Orleans Pelicans.

“[A]t his press conference, he was asked if he was ready to go to New Orleans, and his response was just, ‘Let’s dance,’ " Gerben said. “The next day, both he and the Pelicans went out and filed for the trademark without the other knowing about it.”

The phrase wasn’t unique to Williamson, who admitted that he got it from Thanos, his favorite Marvel character. The Pelicans beat Williamson’s representatives to apply for a trademark by about five hours. The four trademark requests in Williamson’s name were for things like toys, clothing and athletic wear, bags and luggage, and computer games and mobile applications. The Pelicans’ pair of requests include video games, educational and entertainment services and appearances as well as clothing and accessories. The applications will be assigned to an examining attorney.

Ohio State’s idea, whether as a self-aware wink or a bit of pretentiousness, is a fun one, an echo of the athletes who introduce themselves before NFL games as coming from “THE Ohio State University.” That four-word phrase can be a source of pride or annoyance, depending on your alma mater, but it’s valuable branding for the school.

“Like other institutions, Ohio State works to vigorously protect the university’s brand and trademarks,” Chris Davey, a spokesman for the university, said in a statement to the Columbus Dispatch. “These assets hold significant value, which benefits our students and faculty and the broader community by supporting our core academic mission of teaching and research.”

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