JOHN F. KENNEDY

JOHN F. KENNEDY

You can’t turn your back on anybody.

Take Harvard University, for example, an institution one might think of as a temple of virtue. It turns out that Harvard has been using the trade-mark laws to get control of common expressions. The university has an pending application, for example, to register the phrase “Managing Yourself.” The rationale is that the phrase is used by the university in promotional campaigns for one of its schools, and Harvard doesn’t want someone claiming a prior right to the words. As if.

If that sounds overly cautious, consider the fact that the university has filed a trademark application for the expression “The world’s thinking” based on the idea that the school may want to use those words in the future.

KAHLIL GIBRAN

KAHLIL GIBRAN

Among the items so highly treasured in Cambridge is the line “Ask what you can do,” used by the Kennedy School of Government in a variety of campaigns. Those words were, of course, a high point in the presidential inaugural address of a Harvard alum, and the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library is said to be raising its corporate eyebrows over alma mater’s decision to nail down the clause.

There’s no word on whether Harvard has checked with the heirs, if any, of the Lebanese philosopher Kahlil Gibran, who wrote a remarkably similar “ask not” formula in his 1925 work entitled — cough, cough! — “New Frontier.”

Is it all very innocent? One Harvard professor, Harry Lewis, takes at least philosphical exception, expressed in the Boston Globe as follows: “Universities should not be in the business of locking words down. We’re in the business of enlightening the world. To lock down common English phrases seems to be antithetical to the spirit of what universities are supposed to be about.’’

Meanwhile, if Harvard intends to go on registering phrases for which it hasn’t yet found a use — well, Yogi, watch your back.

You can read the Globe’s account of this matter at the following link:

http://www.boston.com/news/local/massachusetts/articles/2009/08/01/dear_old_hahvahd_is_much_more_than_a_name/?page=1

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