Trademarked Phrases: You’re fired

The TV show The Apprentice was one of the biggest hits in TV history. Billed as “the reality show where you don’t win a date, you get a career,” it nabbed over 20 million viewers each episode. Celebrity seasons made it even more popular. The show cemented Donald J. Trump’s image as an entrepreneur and featured his catchphrase, “You’re fired.”

Competing for a Job

The premise of the show was that 16 candidates from various backgrounds would compete to complete difficult tasks on short notice. During these challenges, Trump or one of his associates would watch the competitors and judge how well they worked individually or on teams.

The prize for the grand winner was a “dream job” with the Trump Organization and a salary of $250,000.

Picking Winners and Losers

At the end of every episode, Trump would bring the competitors into his boardroom to decide which ones should stay and which should go. At the conclusion, Trump would point to the loser and say, “You’re fired.”

The show and the recurring phrase became pop culture phenomena.

The strategy for amplifying the show’s visibility through such phrases was clear, aligning closely with Trump’s broader marketing and trademark plans.

In fact, Trump used his popularity on the TV show to build the image he would use to run successfully for president. The picture of a no-nonsense entrepreneur who wasn’t afraid to get things done struck many voters as an appealing change from the usual run of politicians. That image was largely built by his appearances on the show.

Trademark Application Process

Getting a trademark on the famous phrase seemed like the obvious next step, but there were some obstacles. Submitting a trademark application for federal trademark protection involves proving the phrase’s unique association with the products or services offered. It isn’t that easy to trademark a popular, standard phrase that’s part of everyday speech. In this case, the sentence has been around for centuries.

Nobody knows exactly where the phrase “You’re fired” comes from, but there are several theories. Many people believe it originated with John Henry Patterson. Patterson was the founder and president of the National Cash Register (NCR). He started the company in 1884.

Related: Our guide to trademarking a phrase

Horrible Bosses

Stories of Patterson’s angry outbursts and tight-fisted control of his employees are legendary. He was once listed as one of Time magazine’s “Top 10 Worst Bosses” in history.

Among other things, he was known to take his worker’s desks outside and set them on fire. He did this to numerous employees, including executives.

If your desk is on fire, it’s clear your boss doesn’t want you around.

Silver Lining

In one case, he may have done the executive a favor. Patterson pulled his famous firing maneuver on Thomas Watson, one of his top sales executives.

Watson joined a competitor, which later became International Business Machines (IBM). Watson led IBM for the next 40 years. That’s one situation where getting fired had a genuine silver lining.

Could It Be Older?

Some experts say the phrase goes back even further. In the sixteenth century, carpenters found plenty of work in the English shipyards.

If a carpenter couldn’t keep up with the work, the foreman would hand him his tools in a sack. This may be where the British get the term “sacked” for “fired.” A carpenter who was incompetent was sent away after having his tools burned so he could never work as a carpenter again.

Whatever its origin, there’s no doubt that the phrase “You’re fired” has been around for a long time.

Trump’s Trademarks

As the two words became associated with Trump, trademarking them seemed like a logical step.

Trump has more than 20 trademarks related to his name, including for casino services and clothing. (In fact, we collected a list of the Trump trademarks.) He has always been an excellent marketer of his own image. Trump has built residential buildings, luxury hotels, and casinos that all carried his name. He sold licensing deals to international companies to use on developments around the world.

Marketing Opportunity

As The Apprentice continued to grab viewers, the phrase became ubiquitous. People started seeing it on T-shirts, mugs, water bottles, and Twitter hashtags.

It was clear The Apprentice provided another great marketing opportunity. This was not lost on Trump. Shortly after the first episode aired, he attempted to register a trademark for the use of “You’re fired.”

The trademark would restrict the use of the phrase on all kinds of merchandise from toys to beverages.

Trump Was Too Late

Unfortunately for Trump, two other companies already hold trademarks to the phrase.

One is You’re Fired, a pottery store in Bedford, New Hampshire, and another is GodSpeaks, a religious ministry in Atlanta. The religious ministry has a trademark on the phrase, “As my apprentice, you’re never fired.”

Trump and his organization couldn’t do anything to stop these companies from using those names. They had registered their trademarks and had the legal right to use them.

Other Uses

Besides these trademark holders, other businesses used the phrase unofficially long before the show came along.

Susan Brenner owned a ceramic and pottery studio in Northbrook, Illinois. Brenner opened the studio several years before there was an Apprentice TV show, and she chose “You’re Fired” as its name.

When the show became popular, she realized she might need to fight to continue using it. Brenner told the Chicago Tribune, “Every person who walks into my store now says, oh you’re copying Donald Trump, and I say, “No, he’s copying me”.

Not a Trademark

Unfortunately, Brenner never registered the name with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. She didn’t hold a trademark to it, and that left her vulnerable to a potential lawsuit.

Her lawyer filed a cease-and-desist letter against Trump to allow Brenner to keep her business name. The Trump Organization responded with its own legal filing. Neither party filed a lawsuit because there were no damages lost on either side.

But She Voted for Him

There’s an interesting postscript to Brenner’s story. In 2016, she sold her pottery business. In a follow-up interview with the Tribune, she said she bore Trump no ill will and even intended to vote for him.

Fired Up

The lesson of the legal battle over the phrase, “You’re fired,” is that it pays to get your trademark early. Small companies that registered their marks had protection from large, well-heeled businesses like the Trump Organization. However, the failure to secure a federal trademark for the phrase was a missed opportunity in this case.

Through the story of “You’re fired,” we witness the intricate dynamics between pop culture, marketing, and the legal intricacies of trademark filings. This serves as a cautionary tale for businesses big and small about the importance of timely trademark applications to protect valuable assets.

Xavier Morales, Esq.

About the Author:

Xavier Morales, Esq.

Mr. Morales founded this trademark law practice in January 2007 with the goal of providing intellectual property expertise to entrepreneurs and businesses around the country. Since then, he has filed more than 6,000 trademarks with the USPTO. You can learn more about Xavier here.

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