This is a linguistics controversy. Now there are two of them. There are two ____.
The newest major disagreement in linguistics appears to be about a cute little blue guy who looks vaguely like a peep. What on earth is going on? Let’s find out together.
[WARNING: this baby is looooong. If you’re not interested in the particulars of trademark law, or you’re already well aware of what wugs are, you are extremely welcome to skip to the part called The Twisty Turny Backstory]
Why are we yelling??
The wug, a cute, blue, bird-like creature with lil stick legs, is the subject of controversy (the kind with lawyers, yikes!) about who can use it.
If you’re on Twitter, your first indication that something was up might have been that our favorite linguist, Steven “I’m actually not a linguist” Pinker, tweeted about it. Well, he tweeted about himself, but the vehicle for his self-congratulation was the creator of the wug, Jean Berko Gleason (or JBG, as we will refer to her going forward). So if you’re one of the lucky few who hasn’t been blocked by the celebrated genius (or his mysterious colleague), you might have seen this on or around September 11:
Thank goodness big, famous intellectuals like Steven Pinker are here to stand up for the little guy! Defend that intellectual property! And clicking the quoted tweet would take you to this thread, which Jean Berko Gleason had posted a mere thirty minutes prior:
So Jean Berko Gleason is responding to a company who is selling merch using an image she created. She doesn’t link to the post she’s responding to, probably to avoid directing traffic to their store, but we can look them up and see that a company called Lingthusiasm (which is really a podcast run by two linguists) has indeed started selling items with a similar design to the one on the mug in Jean Berko Gleason’s picture. Here’s their tweet, from the night before:
At first glance, it looks like a clear-cut situation. A sweet little old lady is having her creation stolen and sold without her permission. Without even checking with her! And they’re just lying to people about the image being in the public domain? How could they?!
Well, the true story goes a lot deeper, and it has a lot more twists and turns than you might think. So let’s lay out the facts, shall we?
What is a wug?
Pretty cute, right? Is it a cartoon character? A children’s book illustration? No, in fact, it’s a stimulus from a linguistics study.
In 1958, JBG finished her dissertation (a shorter version of which was published in the linguistics journal Word the same year) about how children acquire the rules for English grammar, and more specifically, how they acquire English morphology. Morphology is the study of how we manipulate the structure of words to affect their meaning (for example, what happens in English when you attach a suffix to a noun). Like many linguists, JBG wanted to figure out how to demonstrate that we acquire rules instead of just memorizing which endings go on which words. If she showed a child a word they already knew and asked them how to make it plural, we wouldn’t know if the child was just accessing the plural noun from memory, or if they were using some internalized procedure to put the appropriate plural inflection on it. So to get around this, she invented some made-up words and asked the children about them. This is a common practice in linguistics when we’re trying to get a clue about people’s grammatical knowledge: we use nonce words, or made-up words, that seem like they could exist in the target language, but don’t.
So if you ask a child what goes in the blank, they will nearly always say, “wugs.” That means they know you have to put a vaguely “s” sounding thing on the end of most nouns to make them plural, even if it’s a noun they’ve never heard before! Cool! What’s even more interesting is that they will pronounce the “s” sound like a /z/, with voicing (make an /s/ sound, then a /z/ sound — the only real difference between the two is whether or not your vocal folds are vibrating: that’s voicing). This is a very exciting finding because it shows that children are learning the process for creating plurals, not just pairs of nouns in singular and plural. There were lots of little made-up creatures in this study, but the wug was the first one whose picture got published, and it’s probably the cutest one, so maybe that’s why it appealed to so many linguists over the following half-century.
What does the wug mean to linguists?
After its debut in 1958, JBG’s study became a staple in college courses about morphology and child language acquisition.
As far back as the 1990s (but perhaps earlier), we know the wug has often been used as a common symbol in linguistics communities. For example, in 1999, one TA recalls working for a professor who had named their university’s linguistics group the “Wonderful UnderGrads,” or WUGs, and had been using the image as a sort of logo for them.
Around the time all kinds of people started finding community online, students, hobbyists, and professional linguists alike began to congregate and do what online communities do: find common references, practices, and symbols. One such symbol was the wug. What follows are a few of my favorite examples of wug art and memes. Normally, I’d credit and link you to the people who posted these, but for reasons that will become clear later, I’m choosing to keep the original posters anonymous.
When I was a young linguist, you know, back in my undergraduate days when I was naive and innocent, picking daisies et cetera, I came across this one in a blog post:
Searches for wugs on Tumblr and Imgur yield plenty of entertaining results.
By the early 2000s, many language-related blogs and social media profiles were making use of wugs in their art and incorporating the word “wug” into their names.
On Reddit, it is common for people to take the little alien mascot, the snoo, and alter it to represent the communities in various subreddits. The subreddit r/linguistics is no exception:
By this point, the wug was everywhere. People had doodles of wugs on their school supplies, they made cartoons and designs incorporating wugs, and it became a way to identify someone as a fan of linguistics. There’s a wug crochet pattern, if you’re feeling crafty:
One delightful linguist even incorporated wugs into their nail art. As someone who definitely used nail art to cope with (okay, dissociate from) the stress of grad school, I may or may not need to try this soon:
Someone else made wug cookies, which they accomplished using a cookie cutter they 3D-printed themselves:
Some university linguistics departments even modified the wug to create their own mascots, like the banana slug version at the University of California, Santa Cruz:
So over the course of the 2000s, and likely before, the wug had become a popular symbol for linguists, beloved and recognizable as representing linguistics in general.
In 2006, perhaps in response to the widespread popularity of the creature, JBG published a spiral-bound book called “The WUG Test.” It included newly redrawn versions of the wug along with the other stimuli from the original study. It’s basically a children’s book comprised entirely of those stimuli, so that we might all do this fun experiment on our children. I love experimenting on children, personally: it’s why I became a linguist. And why I became a parent.
Being able to do this experiment on my own child is a very alluring prospect; however, I have thus far avoided succumbing to the temptation due to the fact that this book is just two clumsily laminated cover pages and a bunch of pieces of paper connected by a plastic spiral binding, and yet it somehow manages to cost $14.99 plus shipping.
So nearly fifty years after the first appearance of the wug, after the little critter was a well-established symbol of linguistics for a large and diverse set of communities within linguistics, JBG decided to capitalize on its recognizability by selling a book with one on the cover. You go, JBG, you get your money.
What’s all the legal stuff about?
Clearly JBG doesn’t have a problem with the commodification and sale of wugs in general, but maybe that’s because she is inarguably their creator. In her objections to the Lingthusiasm store, JBG and her supporters had two basic arguments: first, that it’s generally icky to sell wug merch if you’re not JBG, especially without asking her first, and second, that it’s actually illegal to do so. I’ll get into the “generally icky” part later, but let’s get the legal argument out of the way. I will do my best to explain it as clearly and accurately as possible, but full disclosure: not only am I not a lawyer, the closest I’ve ever gotten to interacting with the law is when I was in Mock Trial in high school.
In the United States, we have two primary ways to protect intellectual property: copyrights and trademarks. There’s also patents, but I can’t think of a way that would apply to a bird doodle, so you are mercifully spared a subsection on those.
One of the disputes in this situation is over whether the wug is covered under copyright. A copyright isn’t like a trademark, fortunately, so even if a publication is still under copyright, people can still use the images in it however they wish, as long as they meet the requirements for fair use. Think about how there are lots of people selling merch featuring images of Winnie the Pooh even though it’s still under copyright.
But even if that weren’t the case, is the wug copyrighted?
When you publish a work, you can apply for a copyright, or else there is a default copyright that kicks in. The question of how long a copyright lasts is complicated, but I will try to clarify it a little.
Based on this flow chart, any copyright that might apply to the 1958 study or the images in it is therefore expired unless JBG renewed it (she didn’t).
JBG still believes she has a copyright, because her lawyer argues that the 1958 study doesn’t count. According to a letter written by this lawyer, it looks like the basis for this assertion is that while she created the wug design in the 1950s, she never published the image until 2006, when she published a book called “The Wug Test” (or maybe 2003, as the lawyers claim is the year she had it copyrighted).
They’re asserting that her dissertation and any published papers or articles in existence before 1978 do not count as publications because they were “cited and/or quoted, by academic journals in the linguistics field. These journals were not published by Gleason.” He’s saying that even though JBG wrote and submitted multiple papers to journals that contained pictures of wugs, since she’s not the publisher herself, the copyright clock can’t have started then.
This would be like saying that Dear Abby columns aren’t under copyright because they’re being published by a newspaper and not by the author herself. It’s an absolutely bizarre argument, one that is thoroughly debunked in this Twitter thread.
So clearly JBG doesn’t have any copyright on the original wug drawings, but maybe she has some trademarks. Well, to find out about that, we have Justia, which tracks specific trademark applications.
The story of whether the wug is protected by trademarks looks complicated at first, but thanks to the analysis in this Twitter thread, hopefully I can break it down for you here.
The first application for a trademark on the wug appears to have been filed in 2011. That means that after the wug was already widely used and understood to be a public domain image, and after her new book had already been out for several years, JBG decided she shouldn’t have to allow other people to capitalize on her invention.
So in December 2011, a full fifty-three years after the original image was published, JBG filed for a trademark on the “stylized image of a side-profile of a bird” along with the phrase “THIS IS A WUG.”
She was denied.
What to do now? Well, if you know about trademarks and how they work, you might be aware of the Supplemental Register. The federal Supplemental Register is a list maintained by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for things that do not qualify for the Principal Register. You can put anything on there as long as it is “in actual use in commerce” — since JBG has a wug book for sale, and she has a wug store, she qualifies. Importantly, things on the Supplemental Register are only there so that the applicant’s goods or services can be distinguished from those of others, not to prevent other people from selling similar goods or services. Putting something on the Supplemental Register does not imply the right to exclusive use, or even ownership, of the item.
If you look at the list of actions taken, you’ll notice it says “non-final action.” That’s what they say when they deny a trademark. Then you can see the rest is about the Supplemental Register. So after she was denied her trademark, she put the image plus the phrase “THIS IS A WUG” on the Supplemental Register in November 2012.
Next, in July 2019, she filed for a trademark on the phrase “WUG LIFE” by itself. This was approved in August 2020. Success! Now nobody can claim to be a business called WUG LIFE that sells products like the ones on the wugstore.com website. Nobody but JBG.
As you can see, when a trademark is accepted, the final action on it reads, “REGISTERED-PRINCIPAL REGISTER.” That’s how even we trademark novices can tell the earlier submission, the wug image with the phrase, “This is a Wug,” is not actually trademarked.
Then, just two scant months ago, in July 2020, JBG submitted two simultaneous applications, for which we don’t know the results yet. An examiner hasn’t yet been assigned. These applications are for:
- a “stylized image of a side-profile of bird in the color blue,” which is the image from the 2006 book.
- “THIS IS A WUG” with “stylized image of a side-profile of bird,” which is exactly the same as the one she submitted in 2012, the one that was denied.
So the only trademark that exists, the only one that has ever existed, is on the phrase “WUG LIFE.” No image, and no other phrase.
There. We finished the legal analysis. It’s done.
Misleading claims about trademarks
Oh, speaking of those trademarks JBG doesn’t have? Yeah, she likes to tell people she does. Take a look at her store.
The text at the top of the online store claims that “[t]he Wug image and the logo ‘This is a Wug’ are federally registered trademarks and may not be copied or used in any way without written permission from Jean Berko Gleason.” It’s a bit of verbal sleight of hand there. She did register those things with the Trademark Office, but not in the Principal Register.
Recall the tweet from JBG that started this whole thing. “They say the image of the Wug is public domain. It is not. The image of the Wug, as well as the logos This is a Wug and Wug Life are protected by federally registered trademarks and copyright.” We’ve now discovered that that’s not true.
And here’s the inside cover of the Wug Test book:
So she’s committed to this story that she has the trademarks, when her application was denied years ago.
The Twisty Turny Backstory
So strange that just two months ago JBG applied for two new trademarks, right before Lingthusiasm put wug merch in their store, apparently without warning her. Well, based on the recent statements of JBG and stories from various linguists, we can begin to paint a picture of why she suddenly wanted to try and trademark the image again this year. So let us travel back in time…
A pattern of litigious behavior
We know that there has been a robust community of people sharing fan art, memes, and references to the wug test for quite some time, long before the new wug test book or the trademark applications ever happened. Wherever people on the internet were making wug art, naming things after wugs, and generally wugging it up, JBG was also there, hating all of it.
A linguist on Twitter recently asked for examples of run-ins with JBG and/or her lawyer to list in a thread, which they will continue to add to as they receive submissions. Here are some highlights, anonymized for obvious reasons:
A linguistics student got a delightful little wug tattoo and decided to post a photo of it on Tumblr and Twitter, along with a brief explainer about what wugs are. Guess what else they got! An e-mail demanding they take down the posts.
When they asked for clarification that JBG really intended to ask them to delete their posts about their own tattoo, and the explainers about what wugs were, she confirmed:
You read that right! The lawyers had been activated for a Tumblr post and tweet about a tattoo. Everyone was struck by the odd tone of the message. Nice tattoo you got there… be a shame if something… HAPPENED TO IT!
But don’t worry, the person did end up getting that free book. Best wishes.
Another linguist, who had the opportunity to meet her at a conference, asked about the stories they’d heard about tattoo posts getting targeted by her lawyers. She became very serious and declared officiously that anyone who had ever had a tattoo of a wug should have to pay her royalties.
Take a look at this adorable fan art that someone put up on Society 6. It’s clearly a distinctive and original piece of art that happens to feature a wug.
Even if JBG had a trademark on the wug image, this is an original piece of art and would not be an infringement of JBG’s intellectual property rights. And yet, they received this notice from Society 6:
Society 6 apparently did not verify that the image was an infringement of copyright before taking it down. Nor did JBG contact the artist first to talk to them about it.
Fun fact: RedBubble also does not check whether an image is actually copyrighted when they get a copyright complaint. That’s how JBG has managed to shut down stores in the past.
Based on everything we now know about the copyright and trademark status of wugs, there is nothing about these items that violates the content guidelines. But here we are anyway. Even schools, linguistics departments, and linguistics clubs have been contacted by lawyers demanding that they stop selling anything with wugs on them, even if the designs were extremely different-looking from the original, and even if they were being sold at cost or the proceeds were being donated.
Up until now, the people who had their art and merchandise taken down stayed somewhat quiet about it. It was an open secret that JBG located and attacked fan art regardless of whether it was monetized, but a lot of the people who got hit with takedown notices and messages about their work stayed quiet because they were confused, ashamed, or hurt. So why did it blow up now?
The answer is, I guess, that Lingthusiasm is the biggest, most established, player to try and make use of the wug image, so their wug merch debut in mid-September garnered much more attention than the little guys before them. JBG couldn’t just squash them quietly behind the scenes; she had to act quickly and put out a public statement condemning the alleged IP violation, lamenting that Lingthusiasm had not reached out to her in advance, and redirecting traffic to her own store.
What we didn’t know was that there was another side to this story, one that had been developing in private over several months. So let us cast our minds back to spring 2020, a strange and tumultuous time, when the beforetimes were a crisp and recent memory, and some of us had a faint hope that things would be back to normal soon. Silly us.
March 2020: Lingthusiasm makes a move
Enter Gretchen and Lauren. The two hosts of the popular linguistics podcast, Lingthusiasm, did not love the stories they were hearing about JBG sending her lawyers after all those young linguists for no good reason. So they decided to do something about it.
The next few sections are basically a summary of the story as told by Lingthusiasm, which might feel a bit biased. But they have, as they say, brought receipts (in the form of copies of the correspondences), so I’m going to trust that this really did play out the way they claim. Everything that happened between them and JBG was private, and nobody knew about it until September 18, 2020.
At first, Gretchen and Lauren didn’t know the image wasn’t trademarked, so on March 27, 2020, they contacted JBG and asked if they could license the image to sell merchandise so they could fund a grant for linguistics communicators. They also wanted to have her on their podcast to talk about her work and the legacy of the wug, as a way to make sure she would be credited when they did sell the merch.
April 2020: JBG refuses to play ball
On April 1, 2020, JBG’s lawyer sent them a letter. Maybe it was a licensing offer! How fun! Let’s take a look:
Oh. So, it’s not a licensing offer. Worst. April Fools prank. Ever.
Instead of the reply they were expecting from JBG, Gretchen and Lauren got a demand letter objecting to “infringing material” on various websites belonging to the two. The offer seems to have triggered someone to do a quick google search of “Lingthusiasm+wug” and see if they were using wug imagery or language anywhere, just so they could demand it be removed.
Strangely enough, the only piece of wug art they could point to was not on Lingthusiasm, but on Gretchen’s blog, All Things Linguistic:
Yet again, this is pretty obviously a fair use of the wug image, since it’s very much not a reproduction of the wug test. The letter concludes:
Lingthusiasm had asked to license the wug image from JBG, promising to give credit to her for the creation of the wug image, and they got back an impersonal letter from a lawyer demanding they remove all wug-related images from any of their websites.
April-July 2020: Lingthusiasm pushes on
Understandably, Gretchen and Lauren were confused. They thought they’d get a response that at least helped them understand how to work with the wug image. So they consulted Heidi Tandy, who is a volunteer attorney for the Organization of Transformative Works. Heidi specializes in fair use and fan art, so she was particularly qualified to help them make sense of all this. She’s the one who discovered that there was no trademark or copyright on the wug, only entries on the Supplemental Register (which, as we know, don’t give exclusive rights).
Heidi sent a reply to JBG’s lawyer on April 10, expressing concern that they were misrepresenting or misunderstanding the trademark status of the image with the phrase “This is a Wug.” The letter also details the ways the existing uses of wugs fall under Fair Use.
On April 16, as if unaware of the lawyers’ correspondences, JBG replied to that first email, the one offering to license the image, despite the fact that it was now apparent that the wug was not eligible for licensing as it wasn’t trademarked.
So they puzzled over the confusing response. We ask you to license, your lawyer sends us a letter demanding we stop using wugs anywhere for any reason, even ones that fall under Fair Use, claiming a trademark you do not have. Then you e-mail us saying you want to do the licensing? To license an image that is neither trademarked or copyrighted? Strange.
On July 4, they emailed back. They had to rescind the licensing offer, since there was nothing to license. Instead, they thought it might be good to try and get on a call with JBG so they could clarify the plan and make sure it would be something she was happy with. One way they thought it might be good to help JBG feel happy about their use of the wug would be to use the proceeds of their wug merch to fund a LingComm grant. That way it wouldn’t feel like Lingthusiasm was lining their own pockets using her study. They were excited to tell her about this idea on that phone call.
But they never got a phone call.
July 2020: JBG strikes back
On July 7 and July 28, as we know, JBG submitted two new trademark applications. Lingthusiasm didn’t know about this, but we can see that it happened on Justia, and it just feels relevant for some reason.
On July 13, JBG emailed them back, saying her lawyer disagreed that the trademarks didn’t exist. Which is odd, considering that after she got their email alerting her to the fact that she didn’t have trademarks on any images, she quickly submitted an application for one.
Then, on July 25, the strangest letter of all arrived. JBG’s lawyer wrote once more to Lingthusiasm, continuing to insist that she had trademarks she didn’t have, and claiming that the copyright clock hadn’t started until the 2006 book was published because any publications in academic journals and books before that were just quoting JBG and not real publications by JBG (we discussed this argument back in the section about copyrights and decided it’s… not reasonable).
Looks like they’re hoping to confuse by mixing up the ideas of “principal registrant” and the Principal Register in the Trademark Office. Those are not the same thing. You can be a “principal registrant” for something that’s been denied a place on the Principal Register.
What they are claiming here is actually that the wug has acquired “secondary meaning.” This is some extremely tricky business. Secondary meaning is when a work is so closely associated with a particular author in the minds of the public that seeing the mark actually tells the public that they’re looking at something produced by that author. Basically, for this to be true, any time you saw a picture of a wug somewhere, you’d have to think, “JBG made that picture.” This is why Lingthusiasm has been so adamant that the wug has been made and shared by many people long before the 2006 publication of The Wug Test. Because that shows that there are hundreds or even thousands of versions of wugs out there that are not made by JBG, and which nobody would assume were made by her.
Even more maddeningly, the lawyer demanded that Lingthusiasm delete a podcast episode in which they discuss the wug test!
A podcast episode discussing a scientific study is in no way an infringement of the copyright or trademark or whatever that a person might hold over the contents of that study. That is just beyond the pale.
Finally, this letter contains instructions to stop trying to contact JBG. Don’t talk to her, don’t email her, don’t call her. She does not want to speak with Lingthusiasm or any of its representatives anymore.
Let’s think about that for a moment. Lingthusiasm and their lawyer were now convinced that there is no legal basis for JBG to claim exclusive rights to use the wug image. They wanted to talk to JBG further so they could arrange some way to exercise their right to use the wug while ensuring that she and her legacy retain their place of honor. So they have no reason to talk to the lawyer again, and now they’ve been informed that JBG doesn’t want to hear from them personally, either.
It’s important to note that this letter was apparently sent to JBG as a CC. She was made aware of all of these demands and claims. It’s important because of the way she reacted when Lingthusiasm eventually went ahead and put wug merch up for sale.
Before we move on to the part where the internet learned about the non-JBG wug store, let’s review the facts.
- JBG created a creature called a “wug” as part of a psycholinguistic study, which makes it essentially a research stimulus, like a sample sentence. Stimuli from studies are usually understood to be free to use, since replicability is kind of a thing with science.
- Wugs just happen to be kind of cute, so people involved in linguistics adopted them as an unofficial mascot.
- JBG decided to publish a booklet of her wug test, and she also began to market and sell wugs as images on mugs, tee shirts, and other things.
- JBG doesn’t have any trademarks on wugs. Maybe she thinks she does, but she really doesn’t.
- JBG has been extremely litigious in the past, and has forced people to stop using and enjoying the image even though she has no exclusive rights to it.
- When she was most recently reminded that she doesn’t have any trademarks on the image, she rushed out to apply for some, but continues to pretend she already has them.
- With her full knowledge, her lawyer demanded that Lingthusiasm delete any images of or reference to wugs in their work, and that they refrain from attempting to contact her again.
Okay. Those are the facts. Most of this was totally unknown to the public until September 18 when Lingthusiasm decided that (a) there was no point continuing to try and work things out with a clearly intractable JBG, and (b) forcing the issue with the wugs might result in stopping her from bullying smaller artists in the future. So they took the wug merch public.
On September 10, nearly two months after that bizarre second letter from JBG’s lawyers, Lingthusiasm added wug merch to their RedBubble store. Then they tweeted an announcement that evening (well, evening in the U.S.):
In the tweet, they give explicit credit to JBG for having created the original wug, and assert that it is in the public domain. In the same thread, Lingthusiasm elaborates:
In this tweet, Lingthusiasm refers explicitly to the fact that fan art exists going back to the 1990s, if not earlier. Perhaps they also felt that it’s an important piece of the puzzle that people were already using and sharing the wug image more than a decade before JBG thought to try and trademark it.
Then, they shouted out the lawyer who helped them discover that the wug was in the public domain:
Finally, they created a high-quality reproduction of the original image, so that anybody could use it in their own art if they wanted. Wug power to the people!
Remember, nobody knew about all the correspondence between JBG and Lingthusiasm, nor had anybody looked up the trademark status of the wug yet. All we knew was that Lingthusiasm, which is not affiliated with JBG, was selling wug stuff.
Most comments and retweets were positive. I remember seeing the announcement and feeling excited because I’d always felt a little squicky about the phrase “wug life” and didn’t enjoy the idea of buying things from a white lady who had chosen to brand her products that way.
But the more the wug love spread, the more comments were popping up asking if it was really okay to sell wug merch. One now-deleted comment on my post about it wondered whether JBG would be happy to know about this use of her intellectual property. I answered back, praising JBG for allowing the wug to be in the public domain. Oh how naive we were…
The commenter replied, tagging JBG and saying that she begs to differ. Clearly this person knew more than I did about all those trademark claims. But I would soon learn.
The next morning, JBG sent out her first tweet about the issue. As we now know, her tweet contained two questionable claims. First, that Lingthusiasm had never asked permission to use the wug, and second, that the image and phrase “This is a Wug” were protected by trademarks and copyright. “I wish that they had asked my permission to use the Wug, but they did not. If you like Wug gear, please buy it from wugstore.com instead.”
Several people retweeted her post, including Steven Pinker. “Even if you think the wug is public domain, selling wug merchandise without the creator’s permission is simply disrespectful,” said one Twitter user, linking to JBG’s tweet. “@GretchenAMcC WYD?” said another, and someone else asked, “What say you @lingthusiasm?”
Some were not convinced by JBG’s copyright and trademark claims.
Others commented on the fact that Lingthusiasm was directing all proceeds to a LingComm Grant. “They’re donating the money raised to linguistics communications grants so students can further their education. It’s not like they’re lining their own pockets with it. Also, it’s in the public domain, so why not use it to help new linguists succeed? Do you donate your wug $?”
To this, JBG replied:
So students don’t have to pay royalties to make tee shirts for their linguistics clubs (which the clubs pay to have made), and the wug mugs that get sold at the annual Boston Conference on Language Development help support students. No mention of the sales on RedBubble or cafepress, though. Maybe those profits go to JBG, or maybe they go to an unnamed cause. We still don’t know.
As news of the controversy spread and tensions rose, popular linguistics parody account @LingsSocAm gave everyone a laugh, highlighting the absurdity of having a trademark for the contents of a scientific paper at all:
Regardless of where people fell on the debate, everyone was happy to think about puns for a while.
A few days later, Lingthusiasm added more information about how trademarks work (and why the wug image isn’t trademarked), as well as more evidence that the wug has been a grassroots linguistics mascot for a long time.
The Twitterverse remained split. Some felt it was gross that Lingthusiasm hadn’t asked JBG for permission (we still didn’t know that they had). Others assumed that they had chosen not to contact her because of her reputation for attacking even very obviously fair use instances of the wug. Discussions went back and forth, with two major camps forming along predictable lines. Some conceived of the controversy as a struggle between an entrenched, established senior linguist and younger, more precarious academics who felt squashed by authority. Some considered it to be a question of a sweet old lady being bullied by a greedy company. Which side people came down on may also have been related to their beliefs about age in general, something that became evident when people would preface their pro-JBG opinions with the disclaimer that it might make them seem old.
It probably didn’t help that Steven Pinker tried to put his thumb on the scale. Anybody who had been aware of the controversy involving him, who was aware of his tendency to target and silence the voices of less powerful linguists, considered his alliance with JBG to be a point against her, whether that was fair or not. It was also curious to me how quickly Pinker picked up her tweet and reposted it. Just thirty minutes later!
The jokes we had already developed because of the Pinker letter — the ones about cancel culture, free speech, and the inflammatory words of John McWhorter — likely fed into the backlash against JBG. This and the open secret of JBG’s litigious behavior combined to create a growing sense that she was not the sweet little old victim she claimed to be.
Comments in my corner of the internet became a bit more skewed against her. “I just can’t get over copyrighting ‘this is a wug.’ Who copyrights their stimuli?” asked one person. “And who calls stimuli ‘intellectual property’ as if we wouldn’t, you know, want to do *science* and put things to the test of reproducibility? How do you own an experiment? It’s icky.”
On September 17, JBG posted one more time: The tweet read, “My statement on Wugs” and consisted of two screenshots of text. Steven Pinker put out another tweet reaffirming his alignment with JBG as well.
Here are some of the more relevant excerpts:
“As some of you know, Gretchen McCulloch and Lauren Gawne, who run the popular podcast Lingthusiasm, have begun selling things with Wugs on them…. Without any advance notice to me, they have announced their view that the Wug I created and drew as a young graduate student is in the public domain.”
“Several months ago Lauren and Gretchen proposed a licensing deal to me, in which they would make and sell Wug-themed merchandise that does not overlap with my own.”
“I thought this was a good idea; it would be fun and it would enable more people to use and love Wugs, while still respecting my rights. I really looked forward to it. The collaboration they suggested would have included my being a guest on the Lingthusiasm podcast (which I was happy to do) and even making merchandise with other designs from the Wug Test, like Luns and Nizzes, which I also thought was great. So I was entirely amenable to working with Gretchen and Lauren. It would have been a positive experience for all and would have helped to raise funds for grants for students.”
“But after a number of weeks with no word they retracted the proposal. They now said they felt my trademarks were not completely enforceable. This, of course, was based on their lawyer’s opinion, not on any ruling or court decision. And it was the last I heard from them.”
In this statement, JBG reveals that Lingthusiasm had proposed a licensing deal. Strange, then, that on September 11 she claimed that they had not asked permission. She also says that she expressed interest in the deal, but they ghosted her, then informed her that they believed the wug was in the public domain, and then suddenly the wug merch was in their store. Of course we all know now that they did in fact give her months of advance notice that the wug was in the public domain, and that she responded by refusing to work with them, demanding they remove all mention of the wug test from any of their blogs and podcasts, warning them not to contact her again, and rushing to apply for trademarks. But at the time, we didn’t know that. She goes on:
“This appears to be an aggressive attempt to overwhelm the legitimacy of my ownership. It may be the opinion of the lawyer that Wugs are in the public domain. But we have documents saying we own the rights.”
“There are many interesting moral and practical reasons why something should or should not be in the public domain. But in the end, this is a legal question, based on an attempt to find a way to take away my rights and control I have over the little creature everyone knows I created, and which is dear to my heart. If Lingthusiasm prevails, it will be a victory for them, and for the many people around the world who will gain access to my design and won’t have to acknowledge me in any way and may well use the design for profitable but not admirable purposes. I’m not inclined to be erased so easily from my own history, and so will counter their claims.”
It had become clear that public opinion was still split along whether this was a case of a couple of young, savvy capitalists stealing the intellectual property of a sweet and defenseless old lady, or whether it was a shrewd, litigious authority figure running a PR campaign to squash the free expression of junior scholars. This newest statement only entrenched most people more deeply in whatever camp they’d already been in.
Some people realized that trademark applications were visible to the public, and discovered that JBG had applied for the trademarks in July. People who were aware of that development felt the statement rang false, given the timing. One commenter, for example, pointed out that given the contradictions “[t]his looks nothing like benevolent elder statesperson eager to collab until greedy precariat took advantage. It looks very much like known litigious person continuing to be litigious while selectively reporting events. Why not mention July 2020 TM filings?”
Others noted the contradiction between this post and her previous one. She had said that Lingthusiasm hadn’t asked permission to use the wug, but the new statement says that they had.
One Twitter user answered this question, “It seems pretty clear they asked permission for a completely different use, under completely different terms. They did not ask for permission to use it in the way they have now done.” Several disagreed that this was clear, including Joshua and myself.
People also expressed disapproval of the hyperbolic and self-victimizing tone of the statement, especially the final line.
Still, people continued to stand up for JBG. “I will retweet this hoping that more people will see this. I think that at the end of the day you will have to fight for what’s right and I hope that powerful people will join you. When it’s morally the right thing to do, it’s an easy decision,” said one. Another retweeted her statement with the comment, “Kinda losing my enthusiasm for Lingthusiasm here. Just because you *can* do something doesn’t mean it’s right. Not interested in the legal argument but how is using someone else’s work without proper citation different from plagiarism?”
“This whole thing is a bizarre horror show,” commented another account. “It’s linguistics inside baseball but it’s obvious that the creator is in the right here. Why anyone would choose this fight is beyond me,” tweeted one person. Yet another implored, “Please everyone retweet the shit out of this. So wrong!!!”
In response to this new statement, Lingthusiasm finally published the receipts. It became clear that JBG’s statements about the trademarks were not true, and that her representation of her correspondences with Lingthusiasm didn’t match up with their documentation. Lingthusiasm notes that it could be possible that JBG didn’t realize what her lawyer was doing when he sent those letters. That could be true, although, as they also admit, it is a person’s responsibility to know what her agents are doing on her behalf. And JBG’s litigious reputation (including messages she wrote herself) suggest that she did.
A silver lining
Of course, the discussion wasn’t all riddled with strife and anger. There was still fun to be had. As always, the formula for the wug test (this is a wug/now there is another one/there are two___) provided a productive structure for jokes. Throughout the ordeal, people injected some levity into the situation.
LingsSocAm wasn’t done bringing the cheer; on September 17, just after JBG put out her “Statement on Wugs,” they tweeted:
For many, however, the fact that the wug was now at the center of so much disagreement meant that it was probably tainted as a mascot for linguists.
For some people, it was JBG’s litigious behavior that had tainted the wug. For others, it was Lingthusiasm opening a competing store. Wug strife gripped linguistics Twitter, and some users expressed sadness that people wouldn’t want to use it after all this.
LingsSocAm helped raise our spirits, though, staging the death of the wug and depicting a funeral attended by the other creatures from the original study (images of which you can download here).
Yet again, people got on board with the joke, happy to find some positivity in a confusing and difficult situation.
Multiple Twitter users brought up the idea of creating a new mascot for linguistics, something that would be guaranteed to be free to use from the start. It should be a cute thing, simple to draw and directly related to language. Some suggested that it ought to be a symbol or other object that wasn’t specific to spoken languages so that signed languages could be represented on equal footing. The field of linguistics has a history of erasing signed languages, or treating them as a second class category, a tendency that it has in common with hearing people outside of linguistics.
Nathan Sanders suggested the bnick, an anthropomorphic asterisk. In linguistics research, the asterisk is commonly used before a sentence to mark it as ungrammatical in the language variety being studied.
I found some diagrams of brains with Broca’s Area and Wernicke’s Area colored in, which are two of the first areas identified as being involved in language production. I gave them googly eyes and little smiles and submitted them for consideration.
The discussion went on like this, with linguists proposing and discussing cute mascot ideas, posting memes and jokes about the situation, and generally trying to locate some positivity in a controversy that had brought up difficult and uncomfortable questions within the linguistics community.
As of today (Monday, September 21), we haven’t heard anything new from JBG, her lawyer, or Lingthusiasm. We don’t have a new mascot yet, and we might not actually end up replacing the wug, but at least we can be assured that the joy and creativity that the wug has always inspired is still alive in the community it represents. We don’t know what will happen to the Lingthusiasm store, or if the argument that the wug has secondary meaning will stand up to legal scrutiny, and we may not all agree on whether it’s okay to make money from the design JBG invented nearly sixty years ago. But, if we search for a silver lining, we can at least appreciate that this newest controversy has allowed the whole story to come out into the light so we can come to our own conclusions about who owns a scientific stimulus, even a very cute one, with all the facts in front of us.