By Rachelle Mulumba
It seems the fight to “free” the Taco Tuesday trademark has officially come to an end with Taco John’s, the fast food chain and original rights holders, vowing to abandon the mark last week. This comes following a coordinated marketing campaign effort from super chain Taco Bell and help from basketball superstar Lebron James to liberate the phrase from its’ strict owner thus making Taco Tuesday free for anybody to use. James even starred in a commercial jokingly referring to it as “Taco Bleep” – which Taco Bell has said is “highlighting the absurdity of ‘Taco Tuesday’ being ‘trademarked’ and encouraging the taco community to join together in support of the liberation movement.”
Taco John’s cited lack of funds for lawyers and litigation needed to defend the mark as reason for their eventual capitulation. Above the Law remarked that for Taco John’s it was:
“…never fun as a trademark owner to face a challenge from a better-resourced adversary. For context, Taco Bell has more locations, just in Ohio, than Taco John’s has nationwide. Add in the marketing collaboration it has with one of the world’s most recognized athletes, Lebron James, and it is no surprise that things were looking good for Taco Bell’s legal challenge — both on the merits and in the court of public opinion.”
However, in the aftermath of this tug-of-war, a larger question emerges. Is Taco Tuesday in fact free for everyone to use? And what does that say about the “taco” in Taco Tuesday underscoring the culinary contributions of Mexican Americans in the U.S.? Even Lebron James himself infamously sought to trademark Taco Tuesday years before the current campaign, in order to monetize his popular social media use of the phrase. In the book, The Color of Creatorship: Race, Intellectual Property, and the Making of Americans, Anjali Vats of Boston College asserts that there are “cultural narratives getting erased by unscrupulous and illegal IP practices. And even though we have seemingly race-neutral laws, there is a pernicious, false conviction that people of color are less creative and less expert. We must ‘decolonialize’—by which I mean unseating the stubborn and deceitful belief that people of color are not ‘full people’ who are capable of creating intellectual property.”
The idea that traditional knowledge and IP generated by people of color is not in fact intellectual property but rather free for use and ultimately monetization by all is pervasive, even internally amongst BIPOC communities. While the U.S. is a proud colorful mosaic made up of the best aspects of many cultures and traditions, we should never take for granted the peoples who have contributed to it in spite of challenges such as racism and discrimination. Increasing grassroots IP awareness and expanding IP ownership in underrepresented communities is a strong first step to eradicating these deeply entrenched mentalities.
What is your take on the Taco Tuesday trademark battle? Does cultural misappropriation also have a place in the discourse?
Learn more about Intellectual Property and Cultural (Mis)Appropriation with our comprehensive reading list here.
The Michelson Institute for Intellectual Property, an initiative of the Michelson 20MM Foundation, provides access to empowering IP education for budding inventors and entrepreneurs. Michelson 20MM was founded thanks to the generous support of renowned spinal surgeon Dr. Gary K. Michelson and Alya Michelson. To learn more, visit 20mm.org.