Leiden Law Blog

Allah Jeans – yours to wear?

Posted on by Caspar van Woensel in Private Law , 2
Allah Jeans – yours to wear?

It was the topic of the day in Dutch popular media, early 2013. An Amsterdam artist turned famous overnight after launching a provocative project: branding the God of Islam as his exclusive trademark. It is very Dutch to push the limits by pulling a stunt – and to be proud of this attitude. But in my opinion, religious trademarks are a bad idea.

Let’s look back at the episode. “Allah” as a commercial brand, is that something to look forward to? If we are to believe artist Teun Castelein, he means business. He proudly unveiled his brand name for a prospective line of jeans, scarfs and shoes. He could not believe his luck, Castelein revealed to a Dutch newspaper, when he discovered that the official trademark register contained no prior “Allah trademarks”.

A huge opportunity, then, to make the exclusive claim, he reasoned. And with the registration fee at 250 euro an absolute bargain, considering Allah’s worldwide fame. Castelein’s trademark advisors explained another reason for the operation: to subject the legal system to a test. Is it possible under Dutch trademark law for someone to claim names like God or Allah? Test it, by doing it. On Twitter, the anger spread among Muslim communities within hours of the application becoming known.

The trademark office for the Benelux swiftly threw out the application, deeming Allah brands unfit for trademark purposes. Castelein has opposed this decision, so we will likely hear from him again. In his defense, names such as Jesus is my Homeboy and GodTube (T as Latin cross) were accepted as trademarks in the past, causing his legal advisors to complain about inconsistency.

It is regrettable that those religious references were granted legal status under trademark law. Granting exclusive rights to signs of high symbolic value, whether Christian, Muslim or otherwise, is unwise, as are in fact most forms of commercial use. We are all better off without Allah sneakers on the market. Drawing the line respects sensitivities and saves us from trouble.

Perhaps some of us fancy the thought of being able to buy the odd pair of Allah sneakers (though perhaps not so much the thought of wearing them). But consider this: what would society look like if we were all to follow Castelein’s example?

There is a difference between a man claiming a relationship with God and a man claiming the exclusive commercial rights to his name. As obvious as this difference may be to the world, sometimes it seems that in the Netherlands we don’t care. We provoke, as a way of engaging in a conversation. We expand the body of commercial expression, because each time we believe that to be a person’s freedom. We uphold our values but don’t involve morals.

We feel this attitude is actually our achievement – our Liberty Hall. Aren’t we very mistaken?

2 Comments

Caspar van Woensel
Posted by Caspar van Woensel on May 24, 2013 at 01:11

Thank you Rogier for your supportive comment. Interesting point you make about brand names that involve Christianity. Brand names like GodTube (with sign of the cross) and the sign of the crown of thorns (G-Sus jeans brand) were accepted by the registration office years ago and to my knowledge no serious objections were raised. Even though registration followed a somewhat different protocol in the past, I believe that it was essentially the pro-economy, secular spirit of the times that made those trademarks possible. But growing awareness of the specific concerns in society plays a role, too.
I am not at all convinced that symbols of Christianity would nowadays be accepted by the registration office; any new application “copy paste” as you say will almost certainly be refused. Now that Allah as a trademark was deemed one bridge too far every application for a brand name involving a prominent religious name or symbol will undergo scrutiny.
What is remarkable though, is that Christian believers never protested against past registrations, or they must have done so very quietly; whereas Dutch Hindu’s (Shiva Entertainment, for porn dvd’s) and Muslims vehemently protested, impossible to miss.

Rogier van Geel
Posted by Rogier van Geel on May 2, 2013 at 09:21

I agree that I find it somewhat disturbing that an individual would be willing to jeopardise our society’s moral structure for no other reason than to provoke certain religious groups.
It is tempting to value the freedom of expression as a weightier pillar within our culture than showing a certain measure of respect towards religiously practicing minorities. Nevertheless it is the existence of civil society that makes it necessary in cases such as this to limit this civil right in favour of moral courtesy as well as religious freedom.
Perhaps even more baffling to me however is that an exception seems to be made for brand names that involve Christianity. Perhaps these trademarks were permitted because their creators did not just plainly “copy paste” the name of God without some sort of creative adaptation? Either way I would also agree that this is certainly not sufficient license for a company to mock an entire faith.
To keep things brief it should seem a given that these kinds of trademarks are not acceptable in a civil society where (we should hope) people are raised on morals and values of mutual respect.
Thank you professor van Woensel for bringing this interesting topic to our attention!

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