A Sound and the Fury Hog wild: Harley-Davidson wants to trademark the roar of its engine. Other motorcycle makers don't want to hear it.

November 08, 1995|By Michael Ollove | Michael Ollove,SUN STAFF

About the noise that its motorcycle engines make, Harley-Davidson has always been somewhat self-reverential. A bit loopy, too, some might say.

The sound is "honest," Harley has advertised. It is "reassuring." It is "as straightforward as it gets."

This is engine noise, mind you, not a Boy Scout.

Elsewhere, the company has boasted about the various parts of the body -- aside from the ears -- that are able to experience the sound. You feel it in your chest, Harley says, and in your stomach. The sound is both soul-satisfying and heart-pounding.

Sex should be as bracing as this engine.

Harley has also likened the sound made by its V-twin engines to music, "sweeter than you'll hear from any stereo." One of its more inspired ads claimed that Harley's engines produced "the most famous song (song?) since the national anthem."

Now Harley's critics are saying the company's homage to its own engine noise has reached beyond the outer edge of self-promotion and into the arena of sheer lunacy. Harley is trying to get a trademark on that sound.

"Personally, I think what they're doing is absurd," says Bob Wolf, who owns a motorcycle repair shop in Arbutus. "How can you [trademark] an exhaust note?"

How? By filing the appropriate papers with the federal government and fending off the nine or so competitors trying to stop you.

Those competitors see Harley's trademark application as something more than absurd. They see it as out-and-out dangerous. "If Harley is not contested, if they do acquire the trademark, they back into almost a patent because none of us will be able to build a motorcycle in this category anymore," says Ray Blank, a vice president for marketing in the motorcycle division of American Honda Motor Co.

Although they are often confused, a patent and a trademark are quite distinct. A patent is a government granted monopoly on an invention. A trademark is an assurance to the consumer about the origin of a particular product or service. So, for example, when you see "Coca-Cola" on the side of a can of soda, you know that the soft drink inside comes from Coke and will taste like you expect a Coke to taste.

Anything capable of identifying the source of goods and services can be a trademark. It can be a design, a word, a number or, yes, even a sound. According to the U.S. Patent and Trademark office, 23 sounds have been trademarked. The most famous are the NBC chimes and the roar made by the MGM lion. Others include the irritating jingle of Upper Marlboro-based Mattress Discounters ("Have a good night's sleep on us "), the playing of "Sweet Georgia Brown" when the Harlem Globetrotters take the basketball floor and the tones familiar to MCI and AT&T long distance telephone users.

Peculiarly, Orkin, the exterminator, has trademarked the sound of these words: "Otto the Otto the Orkin Man," and a Texas restaurant chain has registered the sound of "Clop, Clop, Clop -- Moo."

"We used to say there should be a law against ugly trademarks," said Lynne Beresford, a staff attorney with the trademark office. "Unfortunately, it was just wishful thinking."

If some of these sound trademarks seem silly, it should be noted that one smell is also trademarked -- a sewing thread with the fragrance of pulmeria blossoms, whatever they are. And more smells might be on their way to the trademark office. Ms. Beresford has received word from her Canadian counterparts of a trademark on a rose-scented car tire, an idea with obvious merchandising appeal.

Whether it is a good idea or not, the key requirement of a trademark is that it be distinctive, that it not be capable of being mistaken for another trademark. Distinctiveness will be key to Harley's argument in support of its trademark application.

The 'thumpa' test

"Our position is that the sound is really a trademark to Harley-Davidson," said Steve Piehl, a spokesman for Milwaukee-based Harley. "An average motorcyclist, if he heard that sound, could identify it as a Harley."

An informal survey of motorcycle riders indicates that he may be right. Harley riders, and riders of other motorcycles too, seem to agree they could pick a Harley out of the pack with their eyes closed. To many Harley riders, that sound, a loping, unsyncopated "thumpa thumpa thumpa," is part of the allure of the Harley, which is the only remaining American-made motorcycle. So taken are they with that sound, that many a new Harley buyer will immediately throw out the mufflers and install pipes in their place to make the noise even louder.

Outside the Harley-Davidson Museum in York, Pa., John Osborn, a bulky owner of a Harley Fat Boy, fairly burst with pride recently when talking about the noise his motorcycle makes.

"When you come up to a light with other bikes, they're all looking at you; you're not looking at them," said Mr. Osborn, 31, who had ridden three hours from his home in New Jersey to visit the museum. "It's because of that sound."

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