Things can get messy in the world of pop culture trademarks. Titles, symbols, and even references can, with the right paperwork, be claimed as the exclusive purview of a particular rights holder, leading to a continuous morass of lawsuits pouring out like viscera from a zombie’s midsection. But these claims can go either way, depending on the fickle tides of legal opinion. Taylor Swift can trademark “This Sick Beat”; Katy Perry is denied in her effort to do the same for “Left Shark.” It can be very confusing, and well-nigh arbitrary, the legal equivalent of somehow pulling yourself under a dumpster despite being literally surrounded by zombies clawing at you.
Which is why it’s not immediately clear who’s in the right in a new lawsuit brought by The Walking Dead creator Robert Kirkman, whose responsibilities kicking off an excellent new horror series apparently still allow him time to go after people in court. According to The Hollywood Reporter, Kirkman is targeting several people hoping to open a “Walking Dead”-themed New Jersey restaurant, claiming four trademark registrations he’s filed afford what’s called “the presumption of validity” (i.e. he owns the phrase). The defendants are retorting with a fair point, however: They argue the term “has been in common usage amongst horror film followers, fans, and others since the early 1900s, if not earlier” (there’s a 1936 Boris Karloff movie of the same name, for example) and counter-accuse Kirkman of trademark misuse and misrepresentation.
Further clouding the issue, as The Philadelphia Inquirer points out, is several of the defendants’ history of trying to claim other famous phrases as their own. Two of those named have “previously attempted to register several other well-known trademarks including Donald Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ slogan, the phrase ‘No Sleep Till Brooklyn’ of Beastie Boys fame, and the title ‘Brooklyn Islanders,’ which belongs to the NHL.” So, basically attempting to cash in on others’ ideas. But again, such is the great American tradition, as demonstrated by the Seattle artist merrily selling “Left Shark” T-shirts.
Really, this should come down to the food itself, no? It’s intended to be a Greek health-food restaurant, so perhaps Kirkman should simply make sure the actual meals pass legal muster. “Brain-dead Smoothies,” acceptable; “Michonne On A Log,” not so much. Honestly, Kirkman seems on sturdy ground. “The Walking Dead” is now associated with his creation in the collective conscious, so if you want avoid any legal tussles, just tweak the words slightly. You know, like calling zombies “walkers” for six seasons straight.