February 18, 2011
Where I went to college there was a Subway ™ sandwich shop right across the street from the campus. To this day I’m not sure how they stayed open because, no matter when you went in, whoever was behind the counter would look up and yell, "We’re closing in five minutes!" You could go in at noon on a Wednesday and they were closing in five minutes. And they were always out of almost everything, with the result that you could only get your sandwich on white bread, and even then you could only get an Italian cold cut combo which was made with salami, bologna, ham, and at least three other meats which no Italian ever heard of, but that’s okay because they were all exactly like the salami, bologna, and ham, and the whole thing was buried under approximately three pounds of lettuce, which was the one thing they never seemed to run out of. I was reminded of this recently when I heard that the Subway chain is trying to trademark the term "footlong" to describe their sandwiches that are, well, a foot long. Actually they’ve been working on this for at least a year, but I only heard about it recently, proving that boneheadedness is perennial and, like perennial plants, can pop up at any time. I’m not sure what the implications of this would be, other than the fact that no one could use the term "footlong" to describe anything other than a Subway sandwich. Hopefully they’ll be content with the term as a single word and not try to trademark "foot long" as well, otherwise we’ll all be stuck describing everything that happens to be a foot long as either twelve inches or perhaps approximately one-third of a meter. Aside from the legal questions I really have to wonder what the Subway chain would have done back when they first opened if the term "subway" had already been trademarked by another sandwich shop or, for that matter, the subway systems of New York or Boston. This reminds me of the time the Marx Brothers made a movie called A Night In Casablanca, and were threatened with a lawsuit by Warner Brothers, which had made the movie Casablanca just a few years ago. Groucho responded to the threat with a letter of his own stating that he didn’t realize anyone owned the actual name Casablanca, but he also questioned whether the Warners had the right to the term "Brothers". Having done a little research into this I’m pretty sure the Marx Brothers were brothers back when the Warner Brothers were still the Wonskolaser Brothers, but that’s another story. I understand the validity of most trademark and copyright claims, if only because I think people who create things–especially artists, but I think it extends to art’s evil twin, advertising–deserve to be paid for and to have some control over their work. For artists especially copyright can be beneficial.
Consider the writer Anthony Burgess who, when he was forty-one, was diagnosed with a brain tumor and given just a year to live. So he went into a writing frenzy, churning out a bunch of novels that would provide his wife a steady income from royalties after he died. He ended up living to be seventy-six and wrote a lot more, but even if he hadn’t at least he’d guaranteed himself a steady income for thirty-six years. But applying copyright is like yelling "Fire!" in a crowded theater. Sometimes it’s necessary and sometimes it’s just boneheaded and deserves to be punished. If Walt Disney hadn’t gotten away with blatantly parodying a Buster Keaton film the world might never have been introduced to Mickey Mouse, which makes it ironic that I’m probably going to be sued for a copyright violation for using the name "Mickey Mouse", and if that doesn’t happen then Abbie Hoffman’s estate might come after me for ripping off the name of his book. All this reminds me of a cartoon I once saw of Shakespeare rising from the grave. He was saying, "I want….royalties!" Imagine the devastation just to the British entertainment industry. Now imagine that, instead of Shakespeare, it was the Earl of Sandwich. Every Subway shop in the world would be shut down in five minutes.