August 15, 2019


Seventy-five years ago this year, one of the most familiar public service images was created: Smokey Bear. As explained on Smokey Bear’s own personal website, this character was inspired when a Japanese submarine appeared along the California coast during World War II and fired shells onto an oil field. Fear that these could explode and set fire to a nearby forest while most firefighters were deployed in the war prompted action. A desire to urge the general public to take extra care to prevent wildfires was born, and Smokey Bear first admonished us that only we can prevent wildfires in 1944. In the decades since, Smokey’s famous tag line has been updated a couple times, but remains a caution we can all appreciate even (and perhaps especially) today.

If you search the United States Patent and Trademark Office (the “PTO”) database, you will find some information about Smokey Bear, but not a trademark registration. The PTO keeps certain information about materials that are not federally registered or the subject of federal trademark applications. This non-registration data is entered into the database because of treaty obligations, statutes, or other requirements. This information may help examining attorneys when they are searching the database in the course of examining new applications. Such information is indicated with an “application” number beginning with the “89” series. The mark SMOKEY BEAR is entered into the database this way because there are federal statutes protecting the name and image of Smokey Bear.

Federal statutes makes it a crime for anyone to manufacture, reproduce, or uses the name or the character of Smokey Bear knowingly and for profit in certain contexts. Federal conservation statutes also identify the name and character of Smokey Bear as property of the United States. The statute also provides for injunction against anyone who manufactures, reproduces, or uses the name or character of Smokey Bear in violation of the applicable regulations upon complaint by the Secretary of Agriculture to the Attorney General. The Secretary of Agriculture is to deposit fees collected pursuant to regulations permitting licensing into an account for forest-fire prevention campaigns. Smokey Bear’s image and likeness are licensed for use in educational materials and public service announcements educating the public about how to avoid causing wildfires. According to the 2016 Smokey Bear Guidelines, the average annual number of wildfires in the 1930s was 167,277. Between 2001 and 2014, the average annual number was 63,000. So perhaps Smokey Bear has made us more cautious.

In some ways, times have changed since Smokey Bear’s creation. He now reaches audiences through social media as well as print, radio, and television. Public service advertising materials and educational materials can be downloaded with relative ease by authorized users. But Smokey Bear continues to send the same message and we do well to heed it.