Kabbala trademark request refused

The Guardian/November 29, 2003
By Marina Hyde

It's never nice to hear of a religious sect being frustrated in its business expansion plans, and it comes as a special blow to learn that Kabbala, the "ancient Jewish mystic faith" beloved of celebrities as diverse as Madonna and Guy Ritchie, has been foiled by the US Patent and Trademark Office.

The whole business is profoundly spiritual, of course, and therefore resists categorisation, but basically it centres on the pieces of red string tied round devotees' left wrists.

The bracelets, for those yet to finish such key Kabbala texts as The 72 Names of God (cover quote from Madonna: "No hocus-pocus here") protect the wearers from bad karma. Michael Jackson's been wearing one for a couple of years.

Naturally, then, the sect's leaders decided it would be madness not to shore up their brand, and in their trademark application expressed their "bona fide intention to use the mark in commerce on or in connection with the above-identified goods/services" - ie the bracelets.

And yet this week Henry S Zak, the patent office examining attorney, seemed bent on crushing their idealism. "If the 'religious articles' are in the nature of red string," begins his marvellously sparse judgment (viewable on the Smoking Gun website), "registration is refused... The proposed mark merely describes the goods/services."

Perhaps I'm being cynical, but it seems to me that - within the strict limitations of the legal reply - Henry is suggesting the application indicates an attempt to extract money for old rope. Or red string, if you will.

And perhaps he's right. Heaven knows Jerry Hall severed her ties with the sect when it asked for 10% of her income. But, when the initial kneejerk has subsided, is this really the flagrant piece of piss-taking it seems?

Granted, neither the Pope nor the Archbishop of Canterbury has ever attempted to trademark the crucifix (a decision that would actually have posed a problem for Madonna's video stylists for much of the 80s and early 90s).

But what are these Johnnies-come-lately (because we're not seriously going to get into a debate about profound links with ancient Judaism) to do to protect their place in what we might diplomatically refer to as today's bullish religious marketplace?

Surely they must do as churches have often done, and rely on their wiles and rich benefactors? Humorous as Madonna's decision to part with £3.5m to build a Kabbala temple in London may seem, it's not wildly different to the behaviour of the Medicis. In fact, one could while away many happy minutes transposing the same debate about dromedary needlework that was used to tap up her Renaissance predecessors, on to Ms Ciccone herself.

I think it was, er, Eliyahu Yardeni, of the London Kabbala Centre, who said: "Ethics exist to be good for society. That's great. But sometimes you don't want to think about the world, you want to think about yourself. When you learn the Kabbala you will learn that your real agenda - to do what you want - is actually not contradicting what is good for others."

Baffling as it is to see what might draw a "strong-willed" star to such a creed, it's not the first time the lines between business and religion have been blurred. Whatever one thinks of the spiritual reasons, there's no earthly one why the Kabbala faith shouldn't trademark their little bracelets.

As Madonna says of the suspicion-arousing, "imbued with healing through meditation" Kabbala water (£4 a bottle), "it works for me, and it's gotten rid of my husband's verrucas". And isn't that, in a sense, its point? Where would we be if the benefits to be derived from religion and its accoutrements weren't inherently ineffable?

So reconsider, Henry S Zak. It's only a bit of indulgence.

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