Ready to Rumble : Motorcycle Firms in Trademark Fight Over Engine Sound


To America’s only major motorcycle maker, the deep-throated rumbling of a big V-twin engine is as vital as a heartbeat.

Harley-Davidson Inc. installed its first V-twin in 1909 and has stuck with the rough-idling engine ever since. Now the Wisconsin company wants the government to protect its investment with a trademark. Harley says the competition is copying its sound.

The major Japanese bike makers--all with rumbling cruiser-style bikes in their lineups--are preparing to slug it out with Harley in classic American style: They’re going to court. Harley’s competitors say the sound simply comes with the engine and shouldn’t be protected by law.


Sometime in late June or early July, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in Washington will begin hearing the first of nine challenges to Harley-Davidson’s bid to trademark the sound of its V-twin engines.

To avoid becoming the nation’s next nylon--an early DuPont product whose name wasn’t protected and fast became a generic term--the Wisconsin motorcycle maker wants a trademark to block other manufacturers from turning out cruisers that sound like Harleys.

“The sound we like to use, the verbal description, is [a] very fast, ‘potato-potato-potato,’ ” said Joseph Bonk, Harley-Davidson’s trademark attorney.

It is a precedent-setting case, trademark specialists say. Of nearly 730,000 enforceable trademarks on the books in the U.S., only 23 cover sounds and most are for distinctive, artificial arrangements like NBC’s three-toned chime, the MGM lion’s roar and Beneficial Corp.'s jingle: “At Beneficial--toot-toot--you’re good for more.” Harley, however, wants to protect the sound made by a specific type of engine.

Should Harley win, other manufacturers could attempt to trademark their product sounds, said Los Angeles trademark law specialist Stan Sokoloff.

Hoover Co. could try to trademark the sound of its vacuum cleaner, suggested New York trademark expert Darren Saunders. And Waring Products Co. could ask the government to protect the whirring sound of its blender blades.

Cypress-based Yamaha Corp. of America, which has marketed cruiser-style bikes with V-twin engines since 1981, says Harley is nuts. So do American Honda in Torrance, American Suzuki in Brea and Kawasaki Motor U.S.A. in Irvine. The four big Japanese bike makers have filed documents opposing Harley-Davidson’s trademark application. They have been joined by a snowmobile maker and four motorcycle customizers.


“Yamaha has been building V-twin engines since the early ‘80s, and there’s no difference between the sound their engine makes and the sound our engine makes,” said Yamaha spokesman Bob Starr.

Harley disagrees. “There are a lot of ways to make a V-twin sound different,” said spokesman Steve Piehl. “The sound is created by the angle of the pistons, the number of valves, other internal components and the exhaust system. It has been Harley’s sound since the 1930s.”

In its application for the trademark in February 1995, the company provided studies showing that consumers identify the unsyncopated rumbling of a V-twin engine with Harley-Davidson motorcycles, said Gerard Rogers, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office attorney shepherding the Harley case through the system.

Michael Hamm, an Anaheim custom exhaust system maker, says both sides have points in their favor. The “thump-thump” sound of a twin-cylinder engine comes with the engine--all V-twins will have it, he said. But bike makers and customizers can, and do, tweak the final sound that emerges from the exhaust pipes.

“Long, thin pipes will give an engine a high-pitched, raspy sound,” Hamm said. “Short, large diameter pipes give a deep, rumbling sound. And the type of muffler you use also contributes to the final tone.”

As the engine noise case underscores, Harley-Davidson is serious about preserving its brand image. The company, founded in 1903, has survived years of quality problems and the Japanese domination of the U.S. motorcycle market for most of the 1980s to come back with a roar. Its sales successes in the 1990s--annual revenue is now about $1.5 billion--have given it the cash to pursue those it brands as trademark offenders.

The company routinely protests unauthorized use of its winged wheel symbol, its name and even the popular designation for its bikes: Hogs.


A Harley customizer in Santa Ana found that out the hard way last year.

Bikers Dream Inc., which sells custom parts for Harleys from 11 stores around the country, went public and chose the legend HOGS for its ticker symbol on the Nasdaq market. Harley sent a warning letter, claiming that it owns the rights to commercial use of the word “hogs” except when talking about pig farming. Bikers Dream founder Dennis Campbell vowed to fight Harley, but gave up two months ago.

The stock’s new ticker symbol is BIKR.


Sound Distinction

Of the 729,000 active trademarks, just 23 are sounds, including these well-known bits of audio:

* NBC station-identification chime

* MGM’s lion roar

* LucasArts Entertainment’s THX theater sound logo theme

* American Telephone & Telegraph’s spoken letters “AT & T” and spoken letters “AT & T” superimposed over musical sounds

* Rally’s spoken words “Ching” and “Cha-Ching”

* Pinocchio’s Pizza’s jingle “Nobody ‘Nose’ Pizza like Pinocchios”

* Beacon Broadcasting’s thunderclap

* Beneficial Finance: “At Beneficial You’re Good for More” and “toot, toot” sounds set to music

Source: Commerce Department’s Patent and Trademark Office. Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times

Market Share

Wisconsin-based Harley-Davidson Inc. is engaged in an ongoing market-share battle with Japanese manufacturers, who are producing motorcycles with classic Harley styling and sound. Market share, based on January-to-September 1995 sales:

Honda: 30%

Harley-Davidson: 20%

Yamaha: 19%

Kawasaki: 14%

Suzuki: 13%

All others: 4%

Sources: Dealer News magazine; Researched by JANICE L. JONES / Los Angeles Times