This article originally appeared on VICE Australia.
You’ll know the S. It’s that very cool, very pointy S thing that you drew in school. You’d start by drawing six vertical lines, then join them together into a middle section that looped like an infinity symbol, then bookend the whole lot with two sharp points. It was the slickest letter in the alphabet, and drawing it was addictive—but also weird if you consider that the S didn’t mean anything. Drawing it was fun, but where did it come from? What was it?
A few years ago I wrote this article where I tried to figure that out. The answer was the S had nothing to do with Stussy, Superman or Suzuki, or any gang in California. In the end, the most compelling answer came from a professor of Art History from the University of Massachusetts who thought the S might have been a “decorated initial” and had originated in medieval scripts. More on that here.
Anyway, I didn’t know it at the time, but a guy in New York named Mark May read my article and had an idea. Not about the history of the S, but about its future.
Mark was in New York City a few years after moving from Melbourne, Australia, and he’d just trademarked a logo for his coffee van company. My article found him at a rare moment when he was thinking about intellectual property law, and Mark wondered if the S was trademarked. If it wasn’t, he realised he’d have stumbled upon an opportunity.
A quick lesson in trademark law: according to the US Patent and Trademark Office, a trademark “protects brand names and logos used on goods and services.”
Consider the Nike swoosh, or that swirly font that reads “Coca-Cola.” These are just images, but they connote powerful associations in the minds of consumers. Brands spend lots of time and money nurturing these positive associations, so they get their logos trademarked. Trademarking a logo legally protects it in the same way that a patent protects an invention.
In 2011 Forbes attempted to value some of the most famous trademarks, and declared the multi-coloured Google logo to be the world’s most valuable, pricing it at $44.3 billion, or 27 percent of the company's then-value. That's really the main thing you need to know about trademarks: they’re valuable.
Standing in his apartment, reading my article, Mark realised that one of the world’s most universally recognisable symbols—one that came preloaded with such powerful associations as “childhood” and “drawing on desks at school”—might be his for the taking. He just had to hope that no one had trademarked it first.
“So I had a look,” Mark told me over the phone, “but to my absolute dismay, someone had filed a new trademark just two months before me.”
Mark did some digging and discovered the symbol had been trademarked by a college student in Boston. He then got on the phone to learn that this kid was studying healthcare and was about to use the S as a logo on a line of soft clothing to be worn by people with sensitive skin.
Using the world’s most famously pointy symbol to communicate ideas around softness made no sense to Mark, so he made the kid an offer. He wouldn’t tell me exactly how much the offer was for, but it was accepted, and Mark got the trademark.
“But what I didn’t count on the mountain of paperwork and crazy high application fees involved. It took years,” Mark said of the trademark registration process. “But drawing the S thing was addictive, and in the same way I found myself completely addicted to the history, mystery and magic of the symbol. I just wanted to invest and continue.”
Now we’ve come to the controversial part of the story, because obviously it seems a bit shitty for a guy like Mark to trademark an experience we all had in school. When I first heard someone had trademarked the S, I imagined innocent children getting hauled into court over trademark infringement. Outraged, I then used Facebook to track down Mark, who patiently explained that he had no interest in taking anyone to court. I was suspicious, but he explained that he saw himself as a guardian of the symbol.
“Look, I’m aware of people’s knee-jerk reactions,” he told me. “But I wanted to trademark the symbol to preserve it. Over the past 100 years this symbol has permeated itself into almost everyone’s lives irrespective of race, religion, upbringing or beliefs. I just consider myself the caretaker of the now heritage-listed S.”
But what then, I asked Mark, was the financial incentive in trademarking it? Because surely it wasn't purely about conservation.
“Don’t get me wrong, I want to sell products,” he said, and went on to explain how he’s been partnering with artists to create a kind of Etsy for anyone who wants to sell something involving the S. (For more info on that, check out Mark's instagram).
When I pushed him on whether he’d sue anyone over trademark infringement, he admitted it was possible but said he’d only take on large companies. “So kids drawing on their school books will be safe?” I asked.
“Of course!” he exclaimed. “The symbol is nothing without the people who draw it on their school books or tag it on their walls. All I hope to do is inspire people to draw the S and truly revel in its irreverence.”