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March 14, 2019

Penn State isn’t allowed to trademark the term ‘Happy Valley’

Penn State University was denied its trademark request for the term “Happy Valley” this week, four months after filing a request with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

The school applied for the term on Dec. 4 of last year after the previous owner of the trademark failed to renew the registration. At the time, the school told the Centre Daily Times it wanted to use the monkey on officially-licensed clothing, like hats and shirts.

The Trademark Office said in its response to the school that it denied the school’s request for registration in part because of a geographic refusal rule.

The office holds that “commonly-used nicknames for geographic locations are generally treated as equivalent to the proper geographic name of the place identified”. In simpler terms, since most people use Happy Valley as a geographic location, it can’t be trademarked even though State College is the official geographic location. The office treats this like someone requesting to trademark Philadelphia.

The office also denied the school’s request because the use of the trademark would be “ornamental”, and wouldn’t “function as a trademark to identify the source of the clothing”.

In other words, the mark that the school applied for trademark — clothing with the words “Happy Valley” centered and emblazoned — didn’t identify the clothing as a specific brand, the way a tiny polo player over a breast pocket identifies Ralph Lauren.

In January, a spokesperson for the school told the Daily Times the school wanted to protect the term from “improper use”, like a vendor associating Happy Valley with the promotion of excessive drinking.

(We can’t imagine why a vendor would make that connection.)

According to the school’s website, the actual origin of the name “Happy Valley” is unclear, though it does appear to be connected to Penn State:

“There seems to have been some local usage as early as the 1950s, but the term apparently became far more widely used and recognized starting in the late 1960s, about the time when network telecasts of Nittany Lions football games began, and thus might be attributed to sports writers and broadcasters.”

Penn State has six months appeal the Trademark Office’s decision.

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