Cardi B Didn’t Invent ‘Okurrr,’ but That Might Not Matter to a Trademark Judge

The rapper is looking to protect a phrase she made popular, though not for the reason one might think.

Mario Anzuoni / Reuters

Cardi B, as first reported last week in The Blast, recently filed paperwork to trademark her signature exclamation, “Okurrr!”—a playful variation of okay topped off with a trilled r. The news has been met with reactions ranging from astonishment to outrage.

Whenever reports circulate about someone seeking to trademark a high-profile buzzword or catchphrase, misunderstandings about the trademark process circulate as well. That typically starts with confusion over the difference between a trademark and a copyright. The Guardian, for instance, headlined its story, “Not OK: Can Cardi B really copyright ‘Okurr’?” Well, no, because a copyright is for a creative work, such as a song, novel, or piece of software, while a trademark is intended to protect a word, phrase, or symbol in commercial use.

Then there are headlines like this one, for a Mashable video: “Cardi B Trademarked ‘Okurrr.’” All she has done so far (through her lawyers) is file an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The USPTO would still need to review and approve the application before we can say that Cardi B has trademarked the term.

And then there’s the common perception that by filing for trademark protection, Cardi B wants to claim sole ownership for “okurrr!” But don’t expect the rapper’s legal team to start issuing injunctions on any use of the term—like, say, when anchors on a Toledo news station recently practiced trilling “okurrr!” in a cringeworthy display of teen slang.

Trademarks are always sought for specific commercial uses, and in this case, Cardi B has filed applications to cover two types of merchandise. On March 11, her company, Washpoppin Inc., applied for a trademark on “okurrr” to be used on “paper goods, namely paper cups and posters.” The next day, a second application was filed for the same term for use on clothing such as T-shirts and caps.

Not only are those requests limited to this particular merchandising, but they’re also limited to the particular spelling okurrr. As it happens, Washpoppin got the ball rolling last month with a trademark application (also for clothing) for another variant spelling, okurr.

While Cardi B is covering her bases with two-r and three-r versions, the fact that this is a written representation of a peculiar spoken word points to some difficulties that her team might face in establishing the trademark. Okurrr—or okurr or okrrr or okurrrt or any number of other variations on the theme—are all attempts to spell a funny utterance that has no standard form.

And that utterance doesn’t originate with Cardi B, as the rapper herself has acknowledged. Last year, as noted in W magazine, she tweeted that the Kardashian sisters got her “hooked on saying it.” The Kardashians, in turn, likely picked it up from contestants on RuPaul’s Drag Race, such as Laganja Estranja. And RuPaul credits the term to Laura Bell Bundy, a Broadway actor who used it in comic web shorts starting in 2010 featuring a character named Shocantelle Brown.

In fact, Bundy recognized the commercial potential of okurrr (however you spell it) long before Cardi B did. In July 2018, a trademark was filed by Bundy’s lawyer for the word—not as written, but as spoken. Bundy sought protection for a “sound mark,” the audio equivalent of a trademark. In the past, sound-mark status has been granted to such aural elements as NBC’s three-chime jingle and the Looney Tunes theme from Warner Bros. cartoons. Words, too, have made the cut, such as “AFLAC” as quacked by the insurance company’s duck mascot, and “D’oh!” as yelled by Homer Simpson.

As Bundy’s application explains, “The mark consists of the pronunciation ‘okrrr’ which is a proprietary pronunciation of the word ‘Okay’ originally created by applicant and associated with Applicants wholly original character named Shocantelle.” The commercial use covered in the filing is for various entertainment services, including for “ongoing television programs in the field of comedy” and “a continuing comedy show broadcast over the Internet”—befitting a word that originated in a web series.

But the fact that “okurrr!” has spread far and wide without trademark protection has hurt Bundy’s chances to establish the word as distinct to her Shocantelle character, even if she used it first. In February, the USPTO sent Bundy’s lawyer a notice stating that it was prepared to turn down the application because evidence from YouTube and Urban Dictionary established that the term is “commonly used in the drag community and by celebrities.” That evidence focused on one celebrity in particular: Cardi B, of course.

Cardi B, who’s only concerned with being able to plaster two variations of okurrr on a poster or T-shirt, need not be the originator of the term in order to get trademark status. Her lawyers could claim “acquired distinctiveness,” meaning that people have come to commonly associate her with the expression. But regardless of how the USPTO rules, no one need worry about a looming crackdown on the use of “okurrr!” Those slang-slinging Toledo news anchors can rest easy.