Who will get to say “YUP” in music and TV?— The legal battle over a simple utterance

By Kelli Coughlin 

Reviewed by Jennifer Williams

We’ve all become accustomed to various catchphrases that have become increasingly used and recognized in our popular culture.  But never before has this blogger recognized the word “YUP” as one of these so called catchphrases.

Last week, rapper and hip hop artist Trey Songz was sued by Dave Hester, who is the star of the reality series “Storage Wars” on A&E.  But this lawsuit is the just the intermediary between these two entertainers who are battling for use of the word.  Trey Songz had previously sent a cease and desist letter to Hester that demanded the reality star to immediately refrain from using the phrase “YUP” in his television show, in addition to abstaining from selling merchandise that depicts the word.

Apparently Trey Songz uses the phrase “YUP” as his own catchphrase in his songs, an utterance that denotes his signature sound and style in the hip hop world.  He claims to have been using the sound since 2009.  Contrastingly, Hester uses the phrase “YUP” during his auctioning of used goods.  But the difference is Hester obtained a trademark from USPTO in three different occasions for the phrase, the latest occurring in September, while Songz has not obtained such a trademark.

Courts have interpreted trademarks for sounds before this battle commenced stating “A sound mark depends upon aural perception of the listener which may be as fleeting as the sound itself unless, of course, the sound is so inherently different or distinctive that it attaches to the subliminal mind of the listener to be awakened when heard and to be associated with the source or event with which it is struck”.  Theoretically, either the hip hop artist or the TV star could claim trademark over the sound of the word “YUP”.

However, Hester claims in his Manhattan-filed lawsuit against Songz that the two entertainers’ use of the word is different.  Hester’s complaint states that Songz’ version “resembles an animal-like or non-human squeal which begins with a distinct ‘yeeee’ sound before finishing with a squeal-like ‘uuuup’ sound.”

Trademark claims for sounds are extremely rare, however courts have consistently recognized catchphrases as legitimate trademarks.  Hester’s lawsuit against Songz is for an unspecified amount of damages and a court order that prevents Songz from interfering with the reality star’s use of the word.  In other words, Hester seeks to continue use of his “YUP” without intrusion and let Songz use his own version of the word since Hester claims the two sounds are completely different.  In this blogger’s opinion, Hester has a more legitimate claim since he in fact obtained as many as three official trademarks for his catchphrase.  The court will have to evaluate the specific sound of the word and the impact that sound has on the listener.

YUP. Clearly, the two uses are utterly dissimilar yet somehow a plain English word has fostered a heated legal battle in the entertainment industry.

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