Academic’s AT&T Lawsuit Threat Over 'Freedom of Expression'

24 January 2003

An assistant professor of communications studies at the University of Iowa has mailed telecoms titan AT&T a ‘cease and desist’ letter claiming that the public might infer a link between his anti-corporate publication ‘Freedom of Expression’ and the self-same phrase used in some of the company’s print ads.

Kembrew McLeod registered the title of his work as a trademark in 1998 and is taking legal action to express his objection to big business’s attempt by to claim ownership of words, phrases speech and ideas. "I do want to register my genuine protest that a big company that really doesn’t represent freedom of expression is trying to appropriate this phrase,” explains the Prof.

AT&T claims not to have received McLeod’s letter and will not comment until it does, according to company spokesman Jeff Roberts. The ads in question, ran only in college-oriented newspapers during the third quarter of last year, he said.

But for Professor McLeod, this high-profile hounding of AT&T could generate welcome publicity for his campaign against private ownership of language which he argues can impede the free flow of information.

To this end he will be exhibiting his ‘Freedom of Expression’ trademark certificate as part of Illegal Art, an exhibition of art on the fringes of intellectual property, which opens Saturday in Chicago.

Whether or not McLeod’s case draws blood remains to be seen but it has all the making of a potential landmark regarding ad slogans and straplines.

Data sourced from: New York Times; additional content by WARC staff