holiday traditions

It’s the holiday season once again. You may be trimming the tree or lighting candles, turning up the Christmas carols or replaying your favorite holiday movies. Have you ever wondered which of our iconic holiday traditions are fair use and which are trademarked? You might be surprised!

(1) Santa Claus (as We Know Him Today)

What do you think of when you hear the words “Santa Claus”? A fat, bearded man in a red suit? Black boots? Rosy red cheeks? You probably get an immediate image in your head, and we hate to break it to you, but that image is brought to you by Coca-Cola.

Coca-Cola updated Santa Claus for an ad campaign in the early 1900s. That’s why Americans, at least, imagine a particular “look” for this iconic figure. But while the image is licensed by Coke for their bottles and advertisements, the idea of Santa himself cannot be owned. That mythical figure has probably existed since the fourth century.

(2) Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer

Rudolph has an interesting back-story. Another product of an advertisement campaign, Rudolph first appeared in a poem written by a Montgomery Ward advertising copywriter in 1930. The copywriter’s name was Robert May and he, together with his brother-in-law, turned his successful verses into a song a few years later. Interestingly, Montgomery Ward did not keep the rights to Rudolph! The President of Montgomery Ward was feeling generous that holiday. (You might say his heart grew several sizes that year.) He allowed Robert May to retain the rights to his creation.

Now, The Rudolph Company, L.P. owns the copyright and trademark rights in Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer. The song you hear every holiday season is copyrighted by St. Nicholas Music Inc., by the way, the same company that owns “Rockin’ Around the Christmas Tree” and other twentieth-century holiday classics.  

(3) Frosty the Snowman

What about Frosty? Is he just an advertisement, too? Well, no, but he is the product of two media conglomerates who came together to capitalize on the popularity of the 1949 Rudolph song. In 1950, songwriters Jack Rollins and Steve Nelson wrote “Frosty the Snowman.” Gene Autry recorded it, and tada! Another instant classic was born.

Unfortunately, those songwriters weren’t as lucky as Robert May. They did not get to keep the rights to their own creation. Today, Warner Bros. owns the copyright to the song. The 1969 cartoon character is owned by Classic Media, one of DreamWorks’ divisions.

(4) Christmas Carols

While more modern Christmas tunes are generally copyrighted, older ones are not. In fact, many of the Christmas carols you hear around this time of year are in the public domain, which means they were created before 1923. Well before 1923 for many of them: “Deck the Halls” was written in the sixteenth century and was originally a Welsh tune. “Silent Night” was composed by an Austrian in 1816.

Of course, this means that these melodies can be sung by anyone, anywhere, at anytime. Great news for carol lovers; terrible news for those of us who get sick of the constant holiday cheer.  

(5) How the Grinch Stole Christmas

Warning: If you create a holiday display featuring the Grinch, you may receive a cease-and-desist letter. That’s because the estate of Dr. Seuss owns the rights to this popular character. The descendants of the legendary children’s author have not shied away from taking legal measures to protect Dr. Seuss’ legacy.

While we at the Law Office of Zachary Hiller defend the rights of creators to protect their creations, others feel that the litigation of holiday favorites can be a bit much. Arthur Rankin, Jr., the guy who created those Claymation holiday classics we watch every year, thinks we should all be allowed to use Christmas images without facing litigation. In his words: “These days it can seem more like the Grinch who stole Hollywood”.

(6) “Merry Christmas”

Okay, so what about the words themselves? Has anyone tried to trademark phrases? Believe it or not, the answer is yes. In 1994 a greeting card company in Pittsburgh attempted to trademark phrases like “Happy Holidays From…” and “Seasons Greetings From…” for their postcards. They actually did succeed in trademarking “Peace and Joy From…”! As for the rest, these trademarks were denied because the phrases represent general sentiments and greetings, nothing more.

Luckily for all of us, we can still use the term “Merry Christmas” because no individual business owns it. It’s simply a phrase meant to wish others well.

And that’s what all of us at The Law Office of Zachary Hiller wish for all of you this season! Have a happy Hanukkah and a very merry Christmas.


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