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?