Wall Street Journal 23 June 1995 By Anna D. WildeHarley-Davidson is cruising toward a new frontier: It's trying to trademark a noise.
The Milwaukee motorcycle maker, already the owner of the copyright for the word "Hog," has filed a petition with the U.S. patent Office for exclusive rights to its engine sound.
If the company succeeds, the aural emission of its "45 degree V-twin single crankpin motor" would join the roar of the MGM Lion and the NBC chimes as trademarked sounds. The patent office recently invited opposition to Harley's application, one of the final steps before a new trademark is approved.
But experts say Harley may have a hard time proving its engine noise if both unique and closely associated with its brand, the standards for trademarking as sound. "There's nothing intrinsically impossible in saying when you have this sound, its a Harley-Davidson," says Arthur Miller, an intellectual-property expert at Harvard law School. "But they have to prove that."
Harley fans insist ther is a distinctive Hog call, "It's something no other engine has," explains Matthew Pachi, the director of an 800-member Harley-Davidson owners group in Milwaukee. Describing that sound isn't easy, though. Mr. Pachi hears a "low, guttural growl" when he revs up his bike. Johnathan Goldstein, an economics professor at Bowdoin College and a Hog owner since 1971, describes it as two long vrooms followed by four shorter vrooms.
David Edwards, editor in chief of Cycle World magazine, describes the Harley sound as syncopated and adds that some riders have likened it to saying "potato-potato-potato."
Harley-Davidson claims that the trademark is needed because rival manufacturers are already trying to mimic the noise. "We feel there's a competitive threat," says Steve Piehl, a Harley spokesman. "A lot of our owners tell us they buy a Harley just for the sound."
So far, 13 individuals and companies including rivals Suzuki and Kawasaki, have requested a delay in the patent office's ruling so they can present their own arguments. Prof. Miller worries trademarking sounds like Harley's engine noise could lead to monopoly. "How about Rice Krispies?" he says, "Do you think they can trademark the snap, crackle, pop?"
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