What if you wanted to sell a T-shirt that has the NASA® meatball but with the word NASA replaced with NERD. Would that be OK? If you searched the Trademark Office database, you wouldn’t find a trademark registration for the meatball, so does that mean you can use it?
We’ve already seen that people and companies can have trademark rights without having a registration. But you have a bigger problem than common law rights when it comes to NASA and its meatball.
First, you for sure can’t get a registration because the Trademark Office will refuse registration for any trademark that “falsely suggests a connection with . . . [a] national symbol . . ..”* So, unless you actually are NASA, just forget about getting a registration.
But that’s just the beginning of your problems. You just flat out can’t use this as a trademark, even without a registration. There are lots of statutes out there that specifically prohibit the use of certain words and symbols as trademarks, for example:**
- Red Cross and the red cross symbol
- Smokey Bear
- 4-H Club
- Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts
- the copyright symbol ©.
In short, you really need to stay away from this stuff. The T-shirt in the picture was for sale at the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Maybe the company that made the T-shirt had a license from NASA. I sure hope it did.
*15 U.S.C. §1052(a)
**This website has a more complete list.