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The Mysterious Thumbs of Roger Ebert

Odd legal note of the day: movie critic Roger Ebert holds a trademark on “thumbs up.” Who knew?

The famed film reviewer is in a contract dispute with Disney-ABC Domestic Television, which distributes At the Movies with Ebert & Roeper. Disney claimed last week that Ebert was barring the thumbs from his show as a negotiating tactic; now Ebert claims on his official site that he is only withholding the thumbs until Disney negotiates in good faith.

(The Los Angeles Times has still more on the squabble.)

The strangest part of the story is learning that one can trademark the concept of “thumbs up.” Ebert persistently calls it “the Thumbs ™” and says that he shares the trademark with the family of Gene Siskel, his original movie-review-show partner. (Siskel died in 1999; Richard Roeper is his replacement.)

It’s not easy to find good information on the history of this particular trademark. The Museum of Broadcast Communications says Ebert himself “suggested the Romanesque thumbs up-thumbs down rating system.” The site says Ebert and Siskel “had the phrase trademarked to ensure against fradulent use that would endanger its credibility.”

But — aha! — the U.S. Trademark Office comes through with a typically droll report. 1995 was the year. The trademark was for use in “television programs and appearances in the field of motion picture critiques.” The registration number is 1933007, if you’re scoring at home. And the actual trademarked phrase is not “thumbs up” but “two thumbs up.” Which, of course, is the phrase that all studios long to quote.

“Thumbs up” is also trademarked by other people for many other uses, including medical disposal protective gowns.

One final note: reports that contrary to rumor, Gene Siskel did not ask to be buried with one thumb pointing up.

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