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Patent offense: Wayans’s hip-hop line

The actor Damon Wayans is trying to launch a hip-hop clothing line -- with a trademark that rapper Jay-Z famously rhymed with "Jigga." But officials are objecting to the attempt to trademark the racial slur.
ABC \"My Wife and Kids\" Party
Actor Damon Wayans at a Hollywood party in 2004.Getty Images file
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

It appears that Homey D. Clown still has a few tricks up his sleeve. You remember Homey -- the nutty street clown on the comedy show "In Living Color" who kept kiddies at birthday parties in line by whomping them over the head with a heavy sock and saying, "Homey don't play that."

The character disappeared when the show's run ended in 1994, but the guy who portrayed him, Damon Wayans, is still around. He recently starred in the now-canceled ABC sitcom "My Wife and Kids" and is trying to launch a hip-hop clothing line -- with a trademark that rapper Jay-Z famously rhymed with "Jigga."

But the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office don't play that. Its blunt rejection of Wayans -- twice so far -- amounts to its own sock over the head. Officials won't comment on their decision, but trademark attorney Paul Fleischut of St. Louis says the dismissal is a no-brainer.

"There is an act by Congress that says you cannot register a word that is scandalous or that disparages a particular group," says Fleischut. Wayans's New York lawyers are pressing his case, but, says Fleischut, "It doesn't look good."

Not so original
And it turns out that Wayans's idea isn't all that original. The files at the patent and trademark office are littered with the remains of "dead" applications seeking exclusive rights to one or another version of the N-word.

In 1995, Marc Anthony Fitzgerald and Fred Harris of Houston sought to trademark the words "Naturally Intelligent God Gifted Africans" and turn it into a peculiar acronym. Four years later, Scapheld Productions in Cincinnati sought to trademark "Rilniga -- any individual true to his actions and or statements."

The next year, Damon James of Houston put "Field" in front of the word and tried to trademark it. In 2001, Wayde Jeffery Davis of New Orleans tried to trademark a 78-word rant that ended with the N-word, so that he could stick it on a T-shirt.

When 2003 rolled around, Keon Rhodan of Charleston, S.C., gave it a try, seeking exactly what Wayans asked for, except that Rhodan added the word clothing on the end.

Wayans, whose application was submitted early last year, could argue that the word he hopes to trademark, "Nigga," is different, says Todd Boyd, a professor of critical studies at the University of Southern California and author of the book "The New H.N.I.C.: The Death of Civil Rights and the Reign of Hip Hop."

"I don't think it's the same thing," Boyd says. "Hip-hop has redefined the word. It can mean a number of things. It can be a term of admiration. It can be a term of recognition."

Earlier this month, for example, a mostly white jury in Boulder, Colo., cleared a man of ethnic intimidation for using the N-word during a fight in which he broke a black man's jaw, but some younger jurors didn't think the word was offensive because it's so conversational in hip-hop culture.

Yet, Boyd adds, the word may be conversational in hip-hop, but that doesn't mean it's been stripped of all its controversy.

"I've had this conversation with my students a lot," he says. "But I tell them that . . . not everyone is going to be as open-minded as myself."

'The jury's out'
NiaOnline, an African American-focused Web site, recently conducted an unscientific poll about Wayans's efforts. In the poll, 84 percent of respondents say there's "no way" that Wayans should be allowed to own rights to the word. Ten percent say, "Why not," and the remainder say, "I don't know."

"I would hope it would be used in an instructive way," says Sheryl Huggins, Nia's editor in chief. "Until we know how he wants to use it, the jury's out."

Wayans's attorney, William H. Cox, did not respond to multiple inquiries left on his voice mail in New York. But his client's intentions are clearly spelled out in the application. Wayans wants a retail store "featuring clothing, books, music and general merchandise." He would go global, marketing his wares online. There would be drama, comedy, animation -- the Gap meets Comedy Central, all under the N-word.

Several civil rights organizations declined to comment on Wayans's effort.

"We are going to focus on more important issues," says NAACP spokesman John White. The Leadership Conference on Civil Rights and the National Urban League aren't bothering to comment either.

"I'm not sure who would talk about that," says Urban League spokesman Ricky Clemons.

The NAACP, at least, was more aggressive three years ago, when David T. Chang, an Asian American, created the board game "Ghettopoly," which he says was inspired by rap lyrics. The organization picketed Urban Outfitters, one of the stores that sold it, and complained that the game depicted African Americans, Latinos and Jews in stereotype as pimps, prostitutes, crack addicts and money-gouging businessmen.

Urban Outfitters got rid of the game, and Chang was forced to sell only online. Deluged by threatening calls and negative e-mail, Chang unplugged his phone, pleading, in the end, "I'm not a racist person."