Postscript | Intellectual Property Law
Trademark’s “Ship of Theseus” Problem
by Matthew T. Bodie*
Vol. 95, Postscript (Nov 2021)
95 S. Cal. L. Rev. Postscript 27 (2021)
Keywords: Intellectual Property Law, Trademark
The “Ship of Theseus” is a classic philosophical problem posed about the continuity of identity. In Plutarch’s telling, the ancient Athenians preserved for posterity the famous ship piloted by Theseus after the slaying of the Minotaur.1 Once a year, a delegation would travel on the ship to the island of Delos with a tribute to the god Apollo.2 Over time, the wood began to rot, and the decaying planks were replaced with new ones. The ship became “a standing example among the philosophers, for the logical question of things that grow: one side holding that the ship remained the same, and the other contending that it was not the same.”3 The conundrum was recently referenced in the Marvel Comics Universe, as two versions of the organic android Vision puzzled over their identities in the climax of WandaVision.4 A wrinkle was added: what if the boards from the original ship were saved and used to recreate a version of the ship? Would that also be the ship of Theseus?
Trademark has long had a problem with identity. The purpose of trademark is to identify the source of goods or services and thereby make life easier for consumers. But trademark does not make an effort to ensure that the company that holds the mark still reflects the entity that developed the mark’s identity. Rather, trademark has turned largely into an alienable property right, unmoored from its created context.5 The law has severed the connection between the mark and the entity beyond the formalities of organization law, with the result that whoever controls the mark’s owner controls the mark. As a result, new owners can take advantage of reputation capital they never earned, and those with a true connection to the success of the original business can be shut out.6
This Essay argues against the law’s presumption that the corporate entity should have exclusive control over the mark, no matter the continuing connection (or lack thereof) that the entity has with the original business and goodwill. Trademark should instead reflect the potential that the identity will change over time, changing the meaning of the trademark along with it. Rather than blindly empowering individual corporations, trademark law should either pay closer attention to identity issues or allow a wider variety of participants to use the mark in various ways. Either of these approaches to trademark would be messier but would reflect more accurately our complicated reality.
* Callis Family Professor, Saint Louis University School of Law. This Essay is based in part on an ongoing research project presented at the Intellectual Property Scholars Conference and the biannual meeting of the Labour Law Research Network; I very much appreciate comments from Erika Cohn, Mark Lemley, Laura Heymann, Yvette Liebesman, Jake Linford, and Mark McKenna. Thanks to Danielle Dur- ban for excellent research assistance.