Taser Trademark: Company Fights To Keep Journalists From Using Term 'Tasered'
Posted: 12/05/2012 2:05 pm EST Updated: 12/05/2012 3:39 pm EST
When University of Florida student Andrew Meyer shouted, "Don't Tase me, bro!" in a September 2007 confrontation with campus police, he never could have imagined the jolt he gave stun gun manufacturer Taser International.
The expression instantly became part of American pop culture, and it accelerated the battle for control over the way the public uses the word "Taser" -- a fight some say Taser is unlikely to win.
To be sure, even before the Meyer incident, Taser International was distressed by the idea of the general public using the word "Tase" as a verb. But since then, the expression has gained ground in the public consciousness.
Some might think such product recognition would be a marketer's dream. But actually, it's turned into more of a nightmare for the company. Tasers have become increasingly controversial. And as the public talks more about the trademarked electronic stun gun, the manufacturer risks losing control of a word it still technically owns.
"If you do [say 'Tasered'] you bastardize the word," Tuttle said. "The US Trademark Office can declare your trademark null and void if you're not protecting your copyright."
The company's namesake product derives its name from "Thomas A. Swift's Electric Rifle," and it prefers that the media express that in all caps -- as in "TASER" -- or at least with a capital T.
Tuttle said the company is concerned that if it doesn't aggressively badger journalists who use the term "Tasered" or -- heaven forbid -- "Tazered," then the Patent and Trademark Office can decide Taser doesn't have control over its term or doesn't care how it's used, leading to ramifications for the company's intellectual property rights.
A day might come when all stun guns are known as "Tasers."
"Your trademark is invaluable to you," Tuttle said. "You spend a lot of money, branding it, messaging it. And to lose it is foolhardy. It's an investment, and you have to protect it."
But policing public conversation can be nearly impossible. Many companies have seen their products' names change meanings and become part of the public discourse.
People say they "TiVo" their favorite shows, despite using other digital video recorders. You can promise "to Fedex" a document, and the recipient probably won't mind if you use another overnight carrier.
Media blogger Jim Romenesko said Taser has already lost the war and should just give up.
"[It's] a foolish attempt on the part of Taser -- and one that won't work," Romenesko wrote in an email to HuffPost. "I've used 'tased' in many stories ... including ones about the famous 'Don't tase me, bro!' incident."
The fact that people have used the term "Tase" as a verb when fearing a stun gun is evidence that the word has entered the popular consciousness and even subconsciousness, said SUNY Buffalo cultural studies professor Elayne Rapping.
"If they're going out asking reporters not to use 'Taser' or 'Tased,' I think it's too late," Rapping said. "There have been some sensational cases that have grabbed headlines, and now I don't think they can stop it."
Unfortunately for the company, the "Don't Tase me, bro!" incident is just one of several headline-grabbing stories in which the term "Taser" appears, including stories about an alleged jaywalker, a transgender woman, and a young boy, all of whom were reportedly struck by Tasers.
Tuttle insists his company's vigilance has nothing to do with the sensitive nature of the stories in which "Tasered" appears. But he also said he loathes when an unflattering story makes the rounds with Taser written all over it, even though the product used isn't actually made by Taser.
That's what happened last month when a man allegedly pretended a stun gun was his penis. It was originally reported that the device the man allegedly used was a "Taser," but not so, said Tuttle.
"We get all the negative fallout from that story, and it's not even our product," Tuttle said. "We've got controversy attached to our name. We'll take the controversy we deserve, but not the ones we don't deserve."
Romenesko said Taser's efforts to clamp down on journalists probably has something to do with that controversy.
"My guess is that comes into play," he said. "Stories that mention Taser usually involve violence; the company's probably trying to distance itself from that."