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Six Christmas IP stocking fillers

It is that time of year again – when the stores are filled with festive decorations, the air is thick with good cheer and interminable jingles and visions of Intellectual Property (IP) dance in our heads. Okay, maybe that last one is just us. But the next time you find yourself being bombarded by a Christmas crooner as you frantically rummage for a last-minute gift, take a moment to appreciate the world of intangible wonders surrounding you. 

So stick on your red hat, pull up your stockings and join us as we explore six intriguing tidbits from the land of Christmas trademarks, copyrights and patents.

Can you trademark "Merry Christmas?"

Yes, you can. With that, everyone at Dennemeyer would like to wish you – Whoa-ho-hold it right there! While there are several trademark registrations for the words "Merry Christmas" at the United States Intellectual Property Office (USIPO), alongside a whole plethora of variations, the only reason you would have to break out in a sweat while wearing your favorite seasonal pullover would be from embarrassment. You are free to sport your flashiest garb to your heart's content because the phrase "Merry Christmas" is associated by the public with sentiments commonly expressed at this time of year rather than with any particular company.

Merry-Christmas (1)
Courts have generally been reluctant to award trademark protection for terms and expressions widely used in public discourse. To be registered, a mark must be distinctive enough to identify the source of a particular good or service.

Coca-Cola does not own Santa Claus

Everyone's favorite gift-bearing home-invader has a backstory that stretches back long before the beverage company first began using his image in the 1920s. The character's habit of furtively delivering presents originates in the famous generosity of Saint Nicholas of Myra, a Greek Christian bishop who lived from 270 to 343. Over the centuries, Santa's attire evolved from the ecclesiastical to the fuzzy, and his demeanor from the stern and sometimes forbidding to the warm and jolly. With the 1823 publication of Clement Clarke Moore's most famous poem, "A Visit from St. Nicholas," the modern image of a rotund man with a wooly white beard and fur-lined red suit was more or less set in stone.

So while Coca-Cola's marketing campaigns of the 1930s onwards certainly helped to popularize this depiction, they did not create it. Come Christmas Eve, it is only cookies and milk – and not a royalty check – you need leave out in gratitude. All that said, remember that Coca-Cola does own particular depictions of Santa Claus as trademarks, so do not do anything to find yourself on the IP naughty list.

While Coca-Cola certainly helped to popularize many aspects of Santa's persona, he is by no means their exclusive property. The red-and-white color scheme, for example, has long been associated with the holiday season, and Santa Claus is not averse to downing a fantastically sugary soda beverage every now and again.

Christmas copyrights and wrongs

You better watch out, you better not try, better not shout (this song), I'm telling you why – Santa Claus is suing tonight! Copyright law can be notoriously tricky, especially when you consider the differences between countries, so it helps to know your public domain from your "Lady of Spain." (Okay, so it is not a Christmas song, but we would welcome a suggested rhyme.)

It is fair to say that many of the mawkish classics that trickle over our ears every December were composed and recorded in the United States, where – as of 2021 – virtually all sound recordings released in 1923 or later are under copyright protection. All this is to say that "Santa Claus is Coming to Town," "Have Yourself A Merry Little Christmas," "Jingle Bell Rock," "Winter Wonderland" and the world's best-selling single, "White Christmas," are still very much copyrighted. But do not despair; your holiday gathering of family and friends is recognized to be low-key enough not to require a public performance license. So feel free to bug your guests and irritate your neighbors with your musical weapon of choice.

The absolute bottom line for the festive season, though: No one wants to be a Grinch and spoil your holiday cheer. So, try not to get caught up in copyright law and do what is best for those around you – sing loud and sing proud!

As a sidebar, how much do you think it would cost to buy all the gifts mentioned in "The Twelve Days of Christmas?" According to the annual index carried out by the bank PNC, 2021's bill would come to (precisely) $41,205.58. Now, who says you cannot put a price on true love.

"It's a Wonderful Life" gets a second chance (at copyright protection)

You have most probably seen at least part of this James Stewart classic from 1946, but did you know that, from 1974 to 1993, the film was a holiday staple because of an IP slip-up? At that time, copyright protection in the United States lasted only 28 years but could be renewed for a further 28 in the twinkling of a fee payment. However, due to a clerical oversight, no one paid the fee to the United States Copyright Office when the time came. With no studio royalties to be paid, the film found a new home in the December schedule of frugal TV networks across the land, quickly becoming a family favorite and a holiday classic.

It may be a traditional happy ending, but "It's a Wonderful Life" eventually found its place in the IP world. And for fans of the film, that is something to be thankful for. (Image credits: Wikimedia Commons)

So, where does the story go from here? Ironically, it was a 1990 decision by the United States Supreme Court on a case involving another James Stewart film that threw the movie studio a lifeline. In Stewart v. Abend, the Supreme Court ruled that the copyrights of an original piece protect derivative works based on it. Since Republic Pictures held the copyrights to both the soundtrack and the short story on which the holiday film was based, they could then reassert their exclusive rights over "It's a Wonderful Life" – or at least, its music and story. And reassert they did.

A Christmas tree... shaking device

What else could you call "a method of and apparatus for effecting a slight two-dimensional vibration of a tree and its decorations to enhance the appearance thereof and to obtain a pleasing sound from the decorations so vibrated?" This 1947 patent solved one of life's great Christmas conundrums: what to do about boring static Christmas trees. With the application of an eccentric motor at the base, your wobble-free tree could come alive with the sights and sounds of low-amplitude rustling! Cut loose with the tinsel gun we featured two years ago, and you are ready to kick back and enjoy hours of profuse sparkling!

If this invention takes your fancy, be careful with how you word your online shopping searches. This is a family holiday, after all.

A Christmas tree... shaking device (1)
Whether you are looking for a new way to liven up your holiday decor or just a unique conversation piece, a jiggling Christmas tree is sure to bring joy to all who see it. Just make sure you have a sturdy stand to support all that twinkling cheer! (Image credits: Google Patents)

Mistletoe supporting headband

Hideous sweater? Check. Carefully curated Christmas carol choices? Check. You are almost ready to host a holiday party to remember – or forget! It is just time to put the icing on the cake with a bit of mistletoe on your head – because nothing puts the "social" in "socially awkward" quite like kissing your colleagues. (Ah, the blessings of working remotely.) There is nowhere for anyone to hide when you are wearing the very pinnacle of Christmas party fashion. Simply load a fresh sprig at the end of the cantilevered boom supported above your head and watch as all around you pull out their phones to discover urgent appointments.

Mistletoe-supporting-headband1 (1)
If you are one of those people who likes to get in early on the Christmas party action, you may want to consider incorporating some mistletoe into your outfit. It is the perfect way to make sure that you are the one who gets kissed when the moment arises. (Image credits: Google Patents)

So there you have it. We hope you have enjoyed our brief glimpse into the wackier side of festive IP. No doubt all the visionary inventors, artistic geniuses and legal masterminds out there will provide us with many more enchanting stories to look at next year. And if you happen to be one of them, we are more than happy to hear from you. From everyone here at the Dennemeyer Group, we wish you a very merry Christmas and a peaceful 2022!

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