The McCann Time Capsule:  Our 'Truth Well Told' Copyright Breakthrough

The McCann Time Capsule: Our 'Truth Well Told' Copyright Breakthrough

In March 1920, The Architect and Engineer, a publication that did not cover advertising, published an advertising news story of major significance to all business-service practitioners regarding newly available branded protection of their proprietary services. Headlined “Trade Marks for ‘Brain Power’ Secure Protection,” it said “It is now possible to secure government registration and protection for an emblem or business badge of a concern which sells brain power or ‘service’ as distinct from a commodity having the physical attribute of merchandise.”

The government breakthrough—a major benefit not only to architects, engineers, banks, and as the story said, also to “shippers, forwarders, brokers, commission houses, and all manner of concerns not engaged in manufacturing lines”-- was McCann’s own “Truth Well Told.” For it was The H. K. McCann Co. (or at least its lawyer Arthur Middleton) who figured out how to protect a service mark given that the U.S. Patent Office at that time had refused to offer trademark protection for any company offering that wasn’t a hard physical object.

The H. K. McCann Co. had gone into business in 1912 with Truth Well Told as our strategy-based creative philosophy. As an early company publication explained, “The motto of The H. K. McCann Company is TRUTH WELL TOLD. When truth is well told it is energetic, convincing. Truth and the telling of it will single out your story from the crowded advertising pages, endow it with the gift of vitality, create from it the buying impulse.” TWT itself came from the brainpower of two of the agency’s founding partners who had joined Mr. McCann: Copy chief Ralph St. Hill had suggested the phrase, and the agency’s first art director, Thomas Nast, Jr., created the emblem of the sculptor carving out the three words (Nast, incidentally, was the son, and St. Hill the son-in-law, of the famous 19th century political cartoonist Thomas Nast).

Middleton’s solution in getting around the Patent Office’s policy turned on a U.S. Constitution-based strategy. As a Jan. 29, 1920 story in Printers’ Ink, the era’s leading ad trade publication, explained,  “Thwarted at the Trade-Mark division, as has been the common lot of advertising folk who have sought to gain merchandise status for copy writing and market analysis, etc., he turned to the Copyright Office. Here his plaintive lay was to the effect that since the Constitution clearly states that authors and inventors are entitled to protection for their products and inasmuch as protection was denied at the Patent Office for a class of markets that have in many instances become very valuable, there was clearly an obligation upon the copyright officials to afford satisfaction.”  The Copyright Office, while agreeing, also stipulated that the originality and artistic quality of any service marks had to be considered as part of the approval.

Copyright registration was not of the same protective strength as trademarking, but it opened the door for all service companies. Additionally, as The Architect and Engineer pointed out, “Of equal importance is the fact that the copyright entry is a more familiar form of trade mark registration with which to win certification in foreign countries.”

Protecting our Truth Well Told  branded property was not an academic exercise. The motto and emblem were adopted by other organizations of various types around the world, and in all cases required the agency to take action. By the early 1920s, an ad agency in South Africa had used it for itself; the Auckland (New Zealand) Ad Club had made it its official insignia; the Dunlop Advertising Agency in Butte, Montana, adapted it as “Facts Well Told”; and even a newspaper, The Daily Star of New Rochelle, NY, tried using the phrase “The Truth Well Told” as its journalistic motto.

McCann immediately went the next step and  sought stronger protection with the U.S. Patent Office. Following the recommendation of its attorney, it began the process in March 1920 and won its case by that September. As the agency was able to announce, “In January, 1921, we received, through our patent attorney, the formal certificate of registration No. 138998, which marks the close of our activities in this direction for the time being at least. Possibly at some future date we might have occasion to seek international registration. We are now in a position to offer defense against any improper use of our trademark or the adoption by any other company of an emblem infringing upon it.”

Curiously, what the agency did not point out, was that the trademark registration number began with what Harrison McCann had always somewhat playfully insisted was his lucky number, 13. But let’s save that for another McCann Time Capsule entry.

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