We frequently see letters of the Greek alphabet used across culture. Everything from fraternities and sororities to variants of COVID-19 don names from the Greek alphabet. Although the letters of the Greek alphabet are thousands of years old and considered public domain, unique combinations of them are capable of being trademarked.
As the presence of Greek life becomes ubiquitous across American campus culture, many highly visible organizations wish to trademark their fraternity’s or sorority’s name in order to expand the brand associated with membership.
Letters from the Greek alphabet can be trademarked the same way words and phrases comprised of the English alphabet can. While the alphabet itself is public domain, appropriations, combinations, phrasings and slogans that make products unique are all available for trademark; since the letters of the Greek alphabet can have plural meanings, one is not guilty of infringing these trademarks unless they are infringing on the market the trademark exists within.
Trademarking the Greek alphabet hinges on context
One mathematician experienced the complexity of this directly. U.K.-based data scientist Tariq Rashid wanted to highlight the Reimann zeta function — a famously unsolvable mathematical hypothesis — by making a t-shirt with the printing service Spring when the design was abruptly removed from the site’s library.
When Rashid asked Spring why they had denied the design, they replied saying that:
“We completely understand your concerns about our keyword block. As you are aware, Zeta is a letter of the Greek alphabet. The Greek alphabet is currently protected legally by the Affinity Client Services. Due to this ownership and the takedowns we have received, we must police our platform for content using ‘Zeta.’”
But it appeared that Spring had jumped the gun, and that since Rashid’s design was referring to the mathematical usage of ‘zeta,’ it was not an infringement. His shirt was later allowed to remain on the site. A representative of Spring explained that they had accidentally gone too far in an attempt to avoid a legal issue altogether:
“At Teespring (now Spring) we have rigorous technology in place to ensure any keywords monitored or contentious material featured is flagged and reviewed.
“The business consistently errs on the side of caution when reviewing materials and products on the platform. Here an element was flagged as part of this vetting process, resulting in temporary removal from the site. This listing has now been reinstated to our platform after the review proved to have no contentious elements.”
Affinity Consultants, the entity that Spring had initially claimed “legally protects the Greek alphabet,” actually specializes on the trademark licensing of Greek letters and helps companies as well as fraternities and sororities to license their names. But the primary function of trademark law is to avoid confusion, not to grant any one party sole ownership of a letter from the Greek alphabet.
That’s why questions of infringement pivot on market and context, and how companies like Delta airlines and Delta faucets can co-exist without any violation of each other’s rights.