Rudolph® and a Corporate Christmas Gift

The ® in the above title means that the trademark is registered with the United States Patent & Trademark Office (the USPTO). Not every mark is or can be registered with the USPTO, however, and that’s why you see the symbol TM, putting the world on notice that someone is using a word or drawing as a trademark. Although anyone can use the TM symbol, you can only use the “R” in a circle after your trademark if the USPTO has issued a registration for it.

How long does a trademark last? As long as you continue to use it as the mark for a particular product, and, if you register it with the USPTO, as long as you renew the registration every ten years. But what about Rudolph?

Rudolph came to life in 1939 when Montgomery Ward asked one of their copywriters, 34-year-old Robert L. May, to come up with a Christmas story they could give away to shoppers as a promotional gimmick. May settled on the idea of an underdog ostracized by the reindeer community because of his glowing red nose. May named his reindeer Rudolph after rejecting Rollo (too cheerful and carefree a name for the story of a misfit) and Reginald (too British). Montgomery Ward distributed 2.4 million copies of Rudolph in 1939, and a total of 6 million copies had been given away by the end of 1946.

Because May had created the story as an employee of Montgomery Ward, he did not hold any rights to Rudolph and received no royalties. To make matters worse, May was deeply in debt because of medical bills incurred during the terminal illness of his wife, who died about the time May created Rudolph. In a decision rarely seen in corporate America, Montgomery Ward decided to gift Rudolph to May. In January, 1947, May became the sole owner of Rudolph.

“Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was printed commercially in 1947 and shown the following year in theaters as a nine-minute cartoon. The Rudolph phenomenon really took off, however, when May’s brother-in-law, songwriter Johnny Marks, developed the lyrics and melody for a Rudolph song. Marks’ musical version of “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer,” recorded by Gene Autry in 1949, sold two million copies that year and went on to become one of the best-selling songs of all time, second only to “White Christmas.” A TV special about Rudolph narrated by Burl Ives was produced in 1964 and remains a popular holiday favorite. May died in 1976, after having led a comfortable life that his reindeer creation (and Montgomery Ward’s gift) had provided for him.

And the status of the trademark for Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer? Rudolph wasn’t registered with the USPTO until 1984. With Rudolph’s continuing popularity, it is doubtful his owners will let the registration lapse next time it’s up for renewal in 2014.

The author is a local attorney specializing in Intellectual Property law and can be reached at


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