Tuesday 11 September 2018


Magical properties have long been ascribed to intellectual property rights - but I find that the situation is not as recent a development as I thought. In the trade marks world, one might date the explosion of interest in protecting every little aspect of a business's branding for the widest possible range of goods and services to the advent of the Trade Marks Act 1994 (and the Community, now EU, trade mark regulation), but I can now date it back to at least 1926.

My favourite pointless trade mark has long been EU trade mark 5238599 ROYAL MARINE COMMANDO registered for an extraordinary range of goods including, to pick one absurdity at random, bird tables. Although 5338959 is actually even more pointless, being almost identical to the earlier one, with some exiguous changes to the specification of goods and services (it adds souvenir plastic bags and paper hats, for example, and the spelling of "napking rings" [sic] is corrected). This is what we pay our taxes for.

Back in 1926, in Weimar Germany, matters were a great deal more serious. The Roter Frontkämpferbund was a workers’ self-defence organisation founded in 1924 and active, in later years illegally, until 1933. The organization was founded by the Communist Party of Germany in response to the growing activity of militarized fascist organizations, although membership was not limited to Party members (The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979)). Its symbol was this surprisingly modern-looking clenched fist.

Roter Frontkämpferbund.svg
This is not the first example of the use of the clenched-fist symbol which later became ubiquitous among left-wing (not just Communist) groups (see The Communist pedigree of the clenched-fist salute courtesy of American Opinion Publishing, Inc. via The Free Library): it dates back to the French Revolution, and was also used in the revolutions of 1848 and at the First and Second Internationals. But this is the first instance of it achieving a surprising degree of bourgeois respectablity: on 1 March 1926 it was registered as a trade mark in Germany. (I have not been able to work out how to find details of Weimar Republic trade marks, and the German Patent and Trade Mark Office (DPMA.de) doesn't seem to offer such historical information.)

Why on earth register it as a trade mark? Not because the German Communist Party wanted to use it for a range of merchandise like that now purveyed from the Redbubble.com website, such as this nice laptop skin. (Redbubble is a site through which independent artists sell their designs, so the choice of the RFT logo seems to be nothing to do with them, and there also appears to be no political significance to the name of the site.) Using trade mark rights against other anti-Nazi organisations in Germany at that time would have demonstrated a reprehensible lack of solidarity. Suing political opponents for infringement if they used the trade mark would be a waste of time, and anyway what's the point of being paramilitaries if you fight your opponents in the court system? The French left adopted the symbol after the dissolution of the Weimar Republic, but there probably wasn't anyone in a position to grant them a licence even if they had registered a French trade mark (or an International trade mark - wouldn't that have been appropriate - as Germany had signed up the Madrid Agreement, to which France had been a party since its inception in 1892, in 1922). Since when, of course, it has become - perhaps - a generic symbol for everything left-wing, and therefore unsuitable for use as a trade mark on its own (I looked for other clenched-fist trade marks but not very diligently, as it could have occupied a lot of time: I expect that if there are any registered, or any unregistered ones, they will have verbal elements too, which is a pretty important matter for any political movement.)

What, I wonder, would Karl Marx have thought? Turning a symbol of working-class solidarity into a piece of property would (I hope) have rankled with him, but I hope he might have appreciated the benefits of taking advantage of bourgeois or capitalist (which?) trade mark laws to protect something of value to the proletariat - an important element in the class struggle, indeed. But that's not to say that trade mark protection per se would have advanced the cause very much.

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