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Long Live “Power to The People” aka “Eyes on the Prize”

From my email: someone smart has pointed out that there is a new trademark phrase upon us: “Power to the People”. This newly-trademarked phrase is being touted by their owners in E-Trade ads on CNBC. According to E-Trade’s financial help center, this is the definition of a trademark: “A distinctive name, symbol, motto, or design that legally identifies a company or its products and services, and sometimes prevents others from using identical or similar marks. see also intangible asset.” It was also pointed out that the Black Panthers and SDS are known as the first-users and John Lennon has a copyrighted sound recording of the same name. This phrase, in particular has an important diachronic history of coming into being when oppressed people have felt the visceral or proverbial power of the few upon them – the many. But because a trademark is divorced from that history and progress, “Power to the People” can’t be used/found by oppressed people in the same way again. E-Trade!!! I think there is a clear point of trademark absurdity here.

My point is this: Trademarking non-original phrases detemporalizes the phrase and attaches it to nothing more stagnating than a change-aversive object called a company. But in common usage, words and phrases take on special meaning as they fold into culture and society, while people use the phrase and change it as situations see fit. A company’s slogan is fitted to an image of themselves that is specially designed to be set in place. So, when a common phrase is a slogan, that phrase has no chance to be adapted by a person/group in a more perfect situation for that phrase. The company’s fabricated image stymies the phrase from developing and changing. Without killing my ego, I’ll give this one to the “kills innovation” argument. Commercial jingles can be argued to do the same to songs, though songs are not as sub-consciously a part of vernacular and are not as easily thrown around.

Here’s the historical tale of this object of delight according to William Safire.

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