The Privatization of the English Language

Written by Leo Babauta

Today I received an email from the lawyers of author Susan Jeffers, PhD., notifying me that I’d infringed on her trademark by inadvertently using the phrase “feel the fear and do it anyway” in my post last week, A Guide to Beating the Fears That Hold You Back.

The phrase, apparently, is the title of one of her books โ€ฆ a book I’d never heard of. I wasn’t referring to her book. I’m not using the phrase as a title of a book or product or to sell anything. I was just referring to something a friend said on Twitter.

Her lawyers asked me to insert the (R) symbol after the phrase, in my post, and add this sentence: “This is the registered trademark of Susan Jeffers, Ph.D. and is used with her permission.”

Yeah. I’m not gonna do that.

I find it unbelievable that a common phrase (that was used way before it was the title of any book) can be trademarked. We’re not talking about the names of products โ€ฆ we’re talking about the English language. You know, the words many of us use for such things as โ€ฆ talking, and writing, and general communication? Perhaps I’m a little behind the times, but is it really possible to claim whole chunks of the language, and force people to get permission to use the language, just in everyday speech?

What if this were taken to an extreme? What if some billionaire (say, Bill Gates) decided to start trademarking thousands and thousands of phrases, so that he could charge us for each use, or so that we’d have to link back to the Microsoft homepage with each reference? The language, in this scenario, could be entirely privatized if we allow this sort of thing.

So, while this post is probably ill-advised (and yes, I realize that I’m actually giving publicity to Ms. Jeffers), I have to object. I think we have a duty, as writers and bloggers and speakers of the English language, to defend our rights to โ€ฆ words. Free speech is a bit of an important concept, I think.

As an aside, I think the idea of jealously protecting copyright and trademarks, in this digital age, is outdated and ignorant. You want your ideas to spread, and you should encourage people to spread your ideas, not put up all kinds of boundaries and restrictions and obstacles to that being done. This blog, for example, is Uncopyrighted, and will always be free, because I want people to spread my posts and ideas. I think it’s actually good for me as a writer, and it’s (not insignificantly) better for the writing community in general if we can share each others’ work freely. I’m hoping that with posts like this, and the good work of thousands of other like-minded people, the old mindset of fencing off ideas and language will slowly change.

So, no, I will not be adding a Registered Trademark symbol to the previous post. And no, I won’t be adding a phrase of legalese to the post. And no, I won’t even attribute the phrase or link to her book, as I wasn’t referring to the book. And no, I won’t remove the phrase.

I’d rather be sued.

Oh, and I’m not going to change the title of this post either. You’ll have to remove it from my cold, dead iMac.

On a side note: You may feel free to use the title of my book, The Power of Less, in any of your blog posts, on Twitter or even (gasp) everyday conversation.

57 thoughts on “The Privatization of the English Language

  1. Eric

    Leo, I so strongly agree with you. Trademarking phrases, especially those that don’t include the product or service being marketed is preposterous. I just can’t see phrases being intellectual property. For example, JUST DO IT…??? I love Nike, I really do, but registering that phrase is just plain wrong. However, their Swoosh design is their own design, an original piece of logo material and as such should be recognized and protected. And the list could go on and on. Regardless, Leo, I’m with you!

  2. E. Hirsch

    Ditto what Eric said (oh, wait, do I have to attribute, footnote & link that?)… I am so glad you took this on, and your insights are dead on target. Tell ’em go back read the flippin’ Constitution.

  3. John

    This is a wonderful article, for the most part. I certainly agree that phrases, such as the one Ms. Jeffers claims to own, are part of our language and, therefore, shouldn’t be trademarked. While it is certainly appropriate to trademark logos, and slogans that apply directly to a product or service, it is ridiculous and arrogant to try to appropriate ownership of uses of speech. As Mr. Babauta rightly points out, that phrase has been around for, at least, decades.

    I strongly disagree, however, with his contention that the protection of copyrights and trademarks should be discontinued. As an author, I spend tremendous time and thought, as well as much effort, in creating my work. Because it is my unique creation, I deserve to benefit from that, the same way that a carpenter deserves to reap the rewards of his work. The digital age has given rise to piracy, which the pirates have sought to justify, but cannot. Simply because a segment of the population has chosen to steal the works of artists should not be cause to call the practice proper.

    I again agree wholeheartedly with Mr. Babauta that it is left to the individual artist to determine which of his works, if any, are offered for free distribution. I have had blogs in the past and have clearly welcomed their free distribution. But, there are other, more in-depth projects for which I feel perfectly justified in getting paid and controlling the rights thereon. Copyright protection is a vital part of an artist’s career.

  4. Seabee

    Agree totally. I’ve long had a problem with simple English phrases used as taglines in advertisements having the R symbol attached to them. Let’s all just ignore the stupidity of this trend and continue to use the language as we see fit.

  5. Divya

    Those lawyers who sent you that mail either failed to think before they sent the mail or never went to a law school.

    Way to go Leo !!! Remember lot of people are here to support you ( Is this phrase copyrighted ?)

  6. EnergyGuy

    I just had to send this woman my comment directly from her web site:

    “Really? You trademarked a combination of 7 words in the English language and you now want credit whenever it’s used? I just read an article describing how your lawyer threatened to sue a writer who happened to use that combination of words. Guess what … you are not the center of the freaking universe. If someone is referring to your book, then fine, they should reference it. But you do not own the English language, and any person who thinks they do has none of my respect.

    “If you wish to use this phrase for any purpose whatsoever, you are legally required ….” What? If I’m not referring to your insipid (I’m just guessing here, based on your misguided use of trademark) book, then I can use those 7 words whenever I feel like it … without your damn permission!”

  7. Lori

    I had to send the arrogant doc an email, too…
    I hope LOTS of people speak out against this insanity.

    “”Feel the fear and do it anyway”
    You have COPY-WRITTEN this phrase?? A therapist gave me this advice 16 YEARS AGO in regards to acute anxiety attacks I was experiencing. I read a blog that said your lawyers were SUING a man for using that quite common phrase.. How utterly ridiculous.
    I am a member of several different forums dealing with anxiety and depression issues and I am going to post a bulletin about this idiocy at each one. Your arrogance is disgusting… you can’t OWN a common phrase.
    I’m also going to make a point of using the phrase “Feel the Fear and Do It Anyway” as often as possible, without using that little (R) symbol.
    Sue me. :)”

  8. ES

    Drew, are you referring to T-Mobile? I believe they tried (and succeeded?) in copyrighting the color magenta. Absolutely ridiculous.

  9. a

    The word “and”(R) was copyrighted by my brother. Put (R) after using it from now on or we will sue.

  10. Drew

    Not sure, I was thinking of Easyjet orange.

    I think God has the absolute copyright on Magenta as it’s part of the spectrum and therefore I think it’s in the public domain. Thats the answer, sue God!

    What also bugs me about the BS of life is on food packaging ‘serving suggestion’….like I’m stupid enough to expect cold slimy lasagne to look like a plate of food while its still in the box……

    …now don’t get me started.

  11. David Hawthorne

    If the Professor and her attornies wish to press the issue, suggest that they could always “pay you” to provide advertising for “her trademark claim.” Why should you be forced to advertiser her, or her book by granting legitimacy to her spurious claim? You used your/our/my language to describe your thought (the very foundation of expression) and she wants to trademark its use?! Bull shit !(tm). Counter sue (and we’ll join in a class action) for an infringement on your constitutional rights to free expression. Let’s nail their assess to the wall!

  12. John

    Drew –

    Please be advised that I am looking into trademarking “bullshitisation of life.” Even though it seems you may have created the phrase, I’ll have to ask you to refrain from using it, unless you pay me a royalty.

    I am also looking into trademarking LOL.

  13. Tomaj Birchin

    Some years ago, Donald Trump tried to trademark the phrase “You’re fired”, from that Apprentice TV show. He was rebuffed, in part because the phrase “You’re hired” was already tradmarked for a kid’s game, and the two might be confused. (Also because it’s such a generic phrase)

    Trademarking a phrase (or word) is not the same as copyrighting it, and doesn’t have the same limitations. You’re free to say someone’s trademark all you want, you just can’t sell an item with that as its title (loose summary of the law, of course).

    Thus, the author’s blog that had that “fear” phrase in it was on solid legal ground. He wasn’t trying to promote anything that was entitled that, and he only had it in the text. Even that was quoting someone else (and was attributed as a quote). He can’t be successfull sued for this.

    What is does prove though is that some lawyers are spending their time searching the web for any ocurrances of these trademarked phrases, and shooting off letters when they find them. That’s a bit scary. The good thing is that the owner of the phrase is getting billed by her legal team for doing this useless excercise, and thus it’s costing her money.

    If we want a more complicated discussion, look up how Microsoft trademarked the word “Windows” and what a nightmare that is.

  14. Drew


    Doh! I should have thought of that earlier.

    Doh! I can’t even use Doh!

    I am a walking trademark infringement.

    I hope nobody trademarks me as then i’ll really be in the brown smelly stuff

    Thats not a jibe at Gordon Brown – necessarily.

  15. Drew


    Can you trademark something that is already copyrighted?

    When I created and posted ‘bullshitisation of life’ it automatically became a copyrighted work.

    So sorry old bean, you use it without my permission, y’all dead meat son.

  16. Di

    I’m glad the copyright/trademark police don’t hang out where I hang out because I am always quoting or paraphrasing things I’ve read in books, blogs and the newspaper. Can you imagine if all of Shakespeare had the same limitations? So much of his work is part of our everyday language. I mean, can you really go a whole day without saying, “Out damn spot!”

  17. Michael Berkens

    I just lost a URDP on a domain I owned another very common phrased used in the English language based on a “trademark.

    We are appealing this decision in Federal Court.

    We have defended many of these as well.

    There are a ton of trademarks on very common words and terms and people are bringing actions based on them and some are winning.

    This is a lot of what we write about on our blog:

  18. Rowan

    I think some of you are living in a fantasy world.

    Common words, phrases and colors are being trademarked all the time. Try printing the word ‘Caution’ in a phrase on a t-shirt, or useing Cadburys tone of purple on a box of sweets and you will find out very soon that this abuse of our tradmerking system is rife. It is a fact of life, you might not like it but you elected the government who allowed it.

  19. james O'Neill

    What a lot of intellectual property confusion.

    The fault here is not with Susan Jeffers. It is with the trademark authorities who don’t reply with “Don’t be so damn silly” (Ditto the Patent office in some cases).

    That’s very different from Rowan’s point about using Cadbury’s recognizable purple to pass sweets off as theirs. (They can’t own “The color purple”)

    And sorry to be pedantic but You can’t uncopyright something either. The right to say who can do with your work is yours (subject to restrictions), without that right you can’t say people can do what they like with it.

  20. Drake

    I’m not at all surprised by all of this, since I’ve seen so much of this idiocy. As James mentioned above, the same problem persists with the Patent office.

    Sometimes, it makes me think, the Trademark and Patent office are the most retarded thing, and the Legal System governing them even more.

    Everyone wants to own everything.

  21. Rob

    Hahaha, whoops, just noticed this same article got brought up earlier in the comments ๐Ÿ˜›

    Nonetheless, still super ridiculous, and I couldn't agree with you more about how retarded things like copyright law have gotten (as well as just about every area of law, for that matter).

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