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'Let's roll' sparks trademark race, sets up legal battle
PHILADELPHIA -- The foundation set up in the name of Sept. 11 hero Todd Beamer is racing to trademark his last known words -- "Let's roll" -- and ensure that any money made off the phrase goes to the victims' families.
The foundation is competing against various companies and individuals who want to sell everything from T-shirts to mud flaps emblazoned with what has become a catch phrase for American courage.
The race could eventually lead to a legal battle over whether someone can actually claim exclusive use over such a commonly used expression.
Doug MacMillan, executive director of the Todd M. Beamer Foundation, said the foundation wants to put the phrase on merchandise such as T-shirts and hats and put a stop to "profiteering" by those who are already selling such items.
"We think it's horrible for people to want to profit off the events of Sept. 11. If there's anybody who should be benefiting, it should be the victims," MacMillan said.
The foundation, set up to raise money for relatives of victims of the terrorist attacks, applied for a trademark for "Let's roll" on Sept. 26 -- four days after Iman Abdallah of Newark, N.J.
Abdallah's application to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office calls for using "Let's roll" on T-shirts. Abdallah has an unlisted number and could not be reached for comment, but foundation lawyer Paul Kennedy said Abdallah has refused to withdraw the application.
At least a dozen other individuals and companies have also applied for a trademark for "Let's roll" and variations such as "America Let's Roll" and "Are you ready? Let's roll!"
'First in, first swim'
Jack L. Williams, 59, a contractor from Grosse Pointe Park, Mich., applied for a trademark on Sept. 24, two days before the Beamer foundation. He said he ignored a warning letter from the foundation's lawyers.
"I don't care what your name is, it's first in, first swim," said Williams, whose application lists T-shirts and sweatshirts as potential uses. "It's all about good old American capitalism."
Beamer, a 32-year-old account manager for Oracle Corp., was on United Flight 93, which crashed in the Pennsylvania countryside on Sept. 11. It was the only one of four hijacked planes that didn't kill anyone on the ground.
Not long before the crash, Beamer cried, "Let's roll!" on an in-flight phone as passengers apparently prepared to confront the hijackers.
"Let's roll" has since become a national catchphrase. President Bush has repeatedly invoked Beamer's words to rally Americans in the war on terrorism, while rocker Neil Young wrote a tribute song with the same title.
Boston-based patent attorney Tom Holt said he does not believe a trademark on "Let's roll!" would survive a court challenge.
Holt, who is not connected to the dispute, said it is difficult to get legal control of a phrase that many people used before Sept. 11.
"You can't seek to appropriate for your own use words plucked out of the dictionary," he said. "While the words 'Let's roll' have taken on a very profound significance, I don't think trademark protection will be given to that phrase."