I’ve discovered a wonderful new tool that any columnist ought to have. It’s a way to protect myself from anyone who might be inclined to disagree with me, challenge any of my facts, write me nasty letters, or attack my character. Apparently, all I have to do is trademark my name.
I learned this from author and radio talk show host Dave Ramsey. By and large, I agree with and fully support what Dave does. In his show and his books, he encourages people to get out from under crushing debt and teaches them how to build and maintain financial peace. His work has helped thousands of people better their lives. I’ve recommended his material in my own books and columns, and I’ll certainly continue to do so.
A few months ago, however, I wrote a column in which I strongly disagreed with some investment advice Dave had given. As usual, this column was published in print newspapers, on my websites, and as a video on YouTube.
It was the YouTube video that got me into trouble. I received a “cease and desist” letter from Dave Ramsey’s company. It informed me that his name was trademarked and I did not have their permission to use it.
This was something new to me. I’ve written columns and articles for over 17 years. In that time I have quoted, recommended, or disagreed with various public figures. I have also had others quote, recommend, and disagree (sometimes vehemently) with me. That’s one of the consequences of putting yourself out there with your ideas and opinions. It’s true whether you are a nationally-known pundit or an occasional writer of letters to the editor of your local paper. Feedback, both critical and approving, is part of the territory.
Just imagine if controversial public figures like Rush Limbaugh or “Dr. Laura” Schlessinger had the right to prevent others from using their names. Anyone disagreeing with them would have to get creative with descriptive terms. It would be a bit like the characters in the Harry Potter books referring to the villain Voldemort as He Who Must Not be Named.
Then, of course, there is the question of using the names of public figures when you agree with them. If it’s a trademark infringement to cite someone’s name when you are being critical, then logically it would also be a trademark infringement to praise them or recommend their work. Somehow I think the latter violation would tend to be forgiven more readily than the former.
After several emails back and forth, the Dave Ramsey organization ceased and desisted from their attempts to make me cease and desist. My correspondent from his office told me that my column had been caught up in an attempt the company made to stop some YouTube videos that had been using Dave’s name to sell financial products. I fully agree with their efforts to prevent that type of trademark violation. Ripping off someone else’s work is piracy, and I wish them well in stopping it.
I fully intend to continue to recommend Dave’s books. If I disagree with him in the future, I’ll say so. I hope he’ll do the same. (Well, I half-heartedly hope so. To be honest, it’s painful to get feedback from those who disagree with me—especially if they happen to be right.)
That type of public discussion is not only a consequence of being a public figure, It is one of the ways we learn from one another. It is an important part of the free exchange of ideas that is an essential component of a free society.