In 2009, I wrote this comic strip!
Then, lots of people asked for the bumper sticker pictured in the comic – “I was an honor student; I don’t know what happened” – so I made it too!
There is a particular trajectory that sometimes happens with funny phrases. They become popular; then they become common; then they become anonymous.
Recently I was talking with someone who started a new T-shirt website. Their designs were all copies of common slogans, including one that originated with a friend of mine. I pointed this out to them, and they honestly didn’t see the difference between someone specific having created a particular design, and anyone at all being able to make and sell their own version of it because they saw it out in the world somewhere.
Think of any slogan you’ve seen on multiple different T-shirts or stickers, in gift shops, or at conventions, or in truck stops, or tourist stores. Who was the first person to think of the phrase “FBI – Female Body Inspector”? I don’t know how you’d ever find that out.
If you were to put that on a shirt of your own, nobody would stop you. It’s neither novel nor artful, but you could do it all you like. To be unique, you’d have to drill down the parody well even further – e.g., Flannel & Beard Inspector.
But somebody did come up with that phrase, and somebody was the first to put it on a T-shirt, and somebody else did copy them. The phrase “female body inspector” is not trademarked in the United States, according to a USPTO search I just did.
So, because there’s no trademark, and the originator is not vigorously pursuing copyright claims against other versions, it’s essentially impossible now for anyone to claim ownership of it. (Unless someone trademarked a particular visual design incorporating those words – but the only reason I could think of for that would be if it were in a TV show or something, and featured a character or something else from the show.)
Maybe that’s okay! Maybe the culture is benefited by everyone in the world being allowed to make “Female Body Inspector” T-shirts to their hearts’ content. It’s not something I personally want to buy, or wear, or make; I don’t want to hawk anything that I don’t feel is original or artful, and also, come on. But maybe the ability to sell that design royalty-free is what’s keeping horrible tourist shops in business. God bless them, may they sell sleepy-sombrero-man vulgar cactus pots until the earth opens up to swallow them whole.
ANYWAY. I made the above sticker. People rip it off all the time. But yesterday I found a Zazzle seller who went one amazingly lazy step further:
They didn’t quite copy my slogan, they just put my own photograph of the product onto a series of mugs.
Probably they found the photo on imgur or somewhere, and so to them it’s just one more anonymous piece of fodder to be mindlessly thrown onto every imaginable print-on-demand item in the vain hope of making a few pennies here, a few pennies there. The only real winner is probably Zazzle.
I complained about these other Zazzle products using my slogan, but I don’t know if they’ll side with me – when it comes to copyright claims, trying to prove ownership of an un-trademarked slogan presents a certain burden. I do think this particular claim (about the product above) is a good one since they’re literally using my photograph, and photographs are protected under copyright.
It’s worth fighting because having “vigorously defended” one’s intellectual property is a necessary part of proving in court (if it were to ever come to that) that your IP qualifies for protection in the first place, as opposed to being simply lost to the public commons like “Female Body Inspector.”
Besides spending loads of money on trademarks or truckloads of money on litigation, though, there’s little any of us can do. We can send emails, we can make snarky tweets, we can hover over our ideas like dragons on a pile of gold.
But in the end, speaking completely pragmatically, the best way to ensure one’s creative livelihood even in an age where ideas are so easily copyable is to always be creating, always coming up with new ideas. Staying one step ahead.
It’s with that in mind that I’d like to present for sale an all-new, original mug design. Check it out on Zazzle.