How do you trademark a military branch that doesn’t exist yet?
That’s the problem the Air Force has faced in attempting to preemptively trademark President Trump’s proposed Space Force, according to emails obtained by Yello through a Freedom of Information Act request.
Trump publicly suggested the idea of a Space Force in March 2018 and the Air Force was looking into protecting trademark registration for the potential sixth branch of the military as early as July 2018, after some non-federal third parties had filed for Space Force trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, or USPTO.
U.S. Air Force Branding & Trademark Licensing was worried that if they didn’t oppose third party registrations, third parties could attempt to “extort a high purchase price to transfer the IP to the Government at a later date,” or even sue the government for infringing on their rights, April Rowden, a senior manager for Air Force Branding & Trademark Licensing, wrote in an email in July 2018.
There are currently 10 live trademark applications for some version of “Space Force” that have been filed by non-federal parties since 2018, according to a review of the USPTO trademark electronic search system.
Trademarks have been filed for items including beer, pens, action figures, drones and toy helicopters, and computer software for parking lot services.
The Air Force office of general council filed a trademark for “Space Force” on March 13, 2019. The filing was just for clothing items with an understanding it could be filed for other categories later on. Should the Space Force ultimately not be created, the application could be abandoned, according to the emails.
The Air Force was aware the Trump campaign was promoting its own Space Force logos but doesn’t expect any of them to be used as the official logo for the proposed branch because the designs infringed on other’s trademarks.
“I know the Trump 2020 campaign crowd sourced a logo,” Rowden wrote in August 2019. “I’m assuming that won’t be the one that’s adopted for Space Force since most of the designs infringed on other’s trademarks.”
The Air Force did not respond to an email asking which trademarks the Trump concepts infringed upon.
One of the Trump logos closely mimicked NASA’s “meatball” logo with “Space Force” written out in type evocative of NASA’s “worm” logo. Others used clip art-style rockets. The designs were widely panned online.
The Trump campaign’s use of a possible military branch to fundraise is unprecedented in modern politics. The Department of Defense prohibits the use of military service marks for advertising or fundraising, and politicians who use them in campaign materials can be asked to stop. Raising money off a yet-to-be-created branch is uncharted territory, however.
There’s no indication in the emails obtained by Yello that the Air Force sought to stop the Trump campaign from fundraising off Space Force. The campaign currently sells Space Force shirts and hats in its online store.
In one message sent by someone whose name was redacted but whose email signature indicated they worked in the Air Force Public Affairs Agency, he or she wondered whether Trump verbalizing Space Force as president gave them first-use protection. Rowden responded that it is unclear whether a presidential statement is “a valid specimen of first use since first use is generally associated with the property being used in commerce.”
The Austin-based ad agency GSD&M has designed branding for the Air Force and last year was retained for a contract through 2027. The firm did not respond to an email asking if they are working on Space Force branding.