Forget NFTs; Ever Tried Owning A Scream?
Like many, you might be puzzled by the recent phenomenon of NFTs, with people spending millions trying to own memes, tweets, Kevin Smith movies, and other things that fundamentally have no value. But this isn't anything new. For the past 50 years, the rich and powerful have done just that, slowly trying to claim eternal ownership of the meaningless yapping that comes out of our mouths.
Sound marks are a little known (or understood) part of trademarking. Unlike music, a piece of art immediately protected by copyright, a sound mark gives ownership over what's at its core just a bit of random noise. That makes sound marks incredibly hard to obtain, and they're typically only granted to big businesses for their iconic stings. Like everyone's favorite jam, the Windows XP startup sound:
Or the THX cinematic intro, that metatronic cacophony that sounds like God shushing you because the movie's starting.
But sound marks don't just cover bleeps and bloops. One of the rarest prizes inside the trademark system is the acquisition of a non-musical sound mark or, specifically, a vocal sound mark. The most famous example of this is described in a 200-word mini-essay that describes the mark as having:
But you might recognize it better like this:
In 1997, Johnny Weissmuller's primeval yodel was trademarked not by RKO or Weissmuller, but by the family of Edgar Rice Burroughs, the creator of Tarzan, who claimed the shouting as part of his brand. Following in his shouty footsteps, others have tried to trademark all kinds of weird grunts, like Homer Simpson's "D'oh," the Pillsbury Doughboy's giggle, and even the Green Giant's "ho ho ho."
While all these sound marks had to prove they're uniquely tied to a brand, they do have one thing in common: they're absolutely useless. Every patent troll knows that the main power of intellectual property comes from threatening other people for biting your trademark moves. But speaking of non-fungibility, with vocal sound marks, that power is pretty much unenforceable. Like the visceral sound a person makes when stepping barefoot on a Lego brick, sound marks are only granted to such individualistic vocal performances they're nigh impossible to replicate. Just ask Tony Goldwyn, who was tasked with doing the Weissmuller yell for Disney's Tarzan and blew out his vocal cords trying.
As if that wasn't bad enough, that uniqueness also makes them nigh impossible to satisfactorily describe by the standards of trademark offices. Harley Davidson once tried to trademark the roaring sound that erupts from their bikes but was utterly rejected because the best annotation they could come up with was describing the sound as "potato potato potato."
So, for now, sound marks are an audible pain in the ass to obtain, and doing so only gets you a fraction of the collector's bragging rights of owning The Scream. (The painting, not the sound). But this might soon change. Thanks to loosened trademark laws and the Venn diagram of celebrity culture and brand culture looking like an out-of-focus circle, "sound signatures" have never been easier to obtain or enforce. While Edgar Rice Burroughs had to spend decades fighting to enforce his Tarzan trademark, in 2019, rapping baby and walking brand Bulldog managed to waltz into a patent office and get not one but two trademarks for his signature yell -- the sound of someone getting their taint waxed.
And with more and more countries recognizing sound trademarks (India started in 2010, China in 2018, and Saudia Arabia in 2020), the almost-lucrative race for who gets to own every single yip, cackle, and groan the human vocal cords have to offer might be on.
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Top Image: RCA Records, RKO Pictures