You may have heard this story. Shortly after the Navy SEAL Team 6 raid that killed bin Laden, Disney moved to copyright the label “SEAL Team 6.” Now comes word that Disney has backed off. As the Wall Street Journal reports, the Navy took an aggressive stance:
The Navy first fired back at Disney with its own filings for trademarks on the phrases ‘SEAL Team’ and ‘Navy SEALs,’ on May 13, several days after Disney’s application. Those terms denote “membership in an organization of the Department of the Navy that develops and executes military missions involving special operations strategy, doctrine, and tactics,” the Navy said in its filings. The Navy had a beachhead with its longstanding trademark on “SEALs,” which it has licensed for videogames, among other products.
“We are fully committed to protecting our trademark rights,” said Commander Danny Hernandez, the chief Navy spokesman.
A Disney spokesman said the company was withdrawing the applications “out of deference to the Navy.”
This incident raises a much larger issue. What is the policy of the US government toward managing its intangible assets? As far as I can tell, that policy is episodic. For example, as the story noted, the Navy has already licensed the trademark “SEALs” for videogames. FBI and others license their trademarks as well. But there does not seem to be a government wide policy. On the other hand, CBS has filed to trademark “NCIS” – based on its popular TV show about the Naval Criminal Investigation Service.
There is an alternative model to managing government intangible assets. In 2007, the French government created the Agence du patrimoine immatériel de l’État (APIE) — the Agency for Public Intangibles of France. APIE’s role is to work with other government ministries to leverage their intangible assets. They help with areas ranging from branding and trademarks to the reuse of government information.
In the US, we tend to put these functions in different silos and basically leave it up to the agencies to figure out what to do. So we have a technology transfer policy dealing with government owned patenting, an information policy dealing with the use of government generated data, and a non-well understood de-facto trademark policy. All of which operated with conflicting goals and objectives. No where do we take a coherent view of these area as government assets.
Maybe we should. The Navy SEALs trademark case is a prime example of why.