Trademarking America’s Rail Lines

When you think about fierce trademark legal battles, you probably don’t envision railroads. Why not? The truth is that railways actually deal with some very interesting cases related to copyrights or trademarks.

This all goes back to the 1940s, when railroads gradually began to decline. Some were sold off, others merged and consolidated to reduce operating costs. Ultimately, more and more lines became what industry insiders referred to as “Fallen Flags”. These abandoned rail lines were sometimes purchased by other railroads, and even if they weren’t used the companies still held onto these trademarks.

By 2005, most of the lines that were going to fade had already done so. That’s nearly thousands in the period of just 60 years. It was a major loss, but one the industry absorbed over time.

However, trademarks from that era are still enforceable by the companies that hold them. Why would that be important?

Let’s say you wanted to build a model of a CSX Transport line for sale on Etsy or eBay. Without acquiring a license to do the work, and present it accurately in accordance with the license holder’s requests, you could be sued. It’s arguable that these restrictions are undue burdens on model makers (they probably are), but it’s an interesting avenue of trademark law not often explored.

Eventually, maybe courts will side with the argument that these trademarks have fallen out of use for too long to still have any value. Maybe then will the tradition of building the train model set make a comeback.