potato, potato, potato, potato
June 23, 2022 1:56 PM   Subscribe

Did You Know Harley-Davidson Tried To Trademark Their Exhaust Sound?

Later in 2000 Harley-Davidson drooped efforts to trademark the exhaust note of their bikes.

However, Nine of Harley-Davidson’s competitors, including Japanese manufacturers Suzuki, Kawasaki, Yamaha, and Honda. Including another American manufacturer Polaris, who filed oppositions against the registrability of Harley’s trademark. As most of the cruisers, they manufactured also used a common crankpin V-twin engine. Which also sounds identical to Harleys by nature.

The response of Yamaha spokesman, Bob Starr was, “Yamaha has been building V-twin engines since the early ’80s. There’s no difference between the sound their engine makes and the sound our engine makes. All V-twins, by their nature, have two pistons. The pistons go up and down, and they all sound the same.”

Is the Sound Really That Critical to Harley-Davidson?

Harley-Davidson concentrates so much on its “sound,” that engineers work in “total silence” rooms at their product development lab to identify and isolate where the engine sounds originate. Their goal is to minimize intake and mechanical noise so they don’t intrude on the main sound attraction, the low, mellow exhaust tone, according to Steve Piehl of Harley.

A Harley-Davidson spokesman said the company, which has been battling opposition to its trademark applications from other motorcycle makers for almost six years, is tired of tossing tens of thousands of dollars into a legal case with no end in sight.

Harley feared that the thump-thump-thump of its engine, a noise that can thrill or chill, depending on the listener’s attitude toward bikes and bikers, would become the next nylon--the early DuPont synthetic whose name wasn’t protected and fast became a generic term.

But the bike maker was roaring up a rocky road when it asked the government for a sound patent: As of 1998, only 23 of nearly 730,000 active trademarks had been issued to protect a noise, and most of those were for artificial arrangements, such as the roar of the MGM lion, NBC’s three-note musical chime and the spoken “AT&T;” superimposed over musical sounds.

Wiki link on sound trademark as a whole and some sounds that actually are trademarked!
posted by Carillon (18 comments total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Leave no potato-themed post behind! Semper Fry!
posted by lalochezia at 1:58 PM on June 23 [6 favorites]

I too was trying to think of an H-D themed post, but I dislike those potato engines (or maybe just dislike those who revere them) so much that I bailed on the idea.
posted by Ickster at 2:06 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

I'd like to patent the ear-splitting BRA-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-A-T-T of unmuffled pipes, forbid their manufacture, and arrest any rider producing such a noise and have their bikes impounded immediately.

(otherwise I really like motorcycles. And potatoes, for that matter)
posted by Greg_Ace at 2:42 PM on June 23 [7 favorites]

At some point H-D became somewhat …. Kardashian in a way. Famous for being famous.

“I want to buy a bike.”

H-D: “Buy ours! It’s expensive!”

“Why should i pay extra?”

H-D: “So all your friends, and people you don’t even know, will see our logo!!”

“But what will the bike actually do for me better than a cheaper bike?”

H-D: “Help you give us more money later!”


H-D: “Listen to that sound!”
posted by armoir from antproof case at 2:50 PM on June 23 [2 favorites]

This post inspired by the fact that at somepoint I internalized they DID get the sound trademark. Well inspired by that and potato week.
posted by Carillon at 2:54 PM on June 23

posted by Lanark at 3:03 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]

I say this as a motorcycle enthusiast: Why anyone would want to admit to creating and perpetuating this execrable noise is beyond me.
posted by maxwelton at 3:04 PM on June 23 [8 favorites]

All this by HD whereas science and facts.tells us that the Royal Enfield 500 Classic has the greatest (non contestable) engine sound.

posted by terminus at 3:06 PM on June 23

Pre pandemic the fairgrounds near my house hosted Honda Goldwing gatherings from time to time. Several dozen would go by at a time, and you could barely hear them. It was so nice!
posted by rockindata at 3:11 PM on June 23 [3 favorites]

I remember this; even all the Harley riders I know thought it was dumb.
posted by TedW at 3:11 PM on June 23

Potato potato potato.
posted by box at 4:03 PM on June 23

Here's what all of Harley's air-cooled engines sound like from the 1903 F-Head to the present day Milwaukee-Eight. If you listen to them in reverse chronology, from newest to oldest, it demonstrates why Harleys have never appealed to me: it's all about nostalgia. The modern Milwaukee-Eight was engineered to sound just like an engine from a century ago, before there was any electronic engine controls, emissions, or noise regulations.

Same reason why I've never found them to be visually appealing, they're designed to evoke nostalgia to designs from the 80's which were, in turn, designed to evoke nostalgia for the designs of the 50's. "Veblen-Davidson" is correct, the company is stuck with a strategy where they want their consumer base, as teenagers, to fall in love with their father's or grandfather's motorcycle, so they can't roll out any fresh design language. Then they charge $30k for a bunch of tired-looking chrome today that looks enough like the motorcycle that their customer fell in love with three decades ago.
posted by peeedro at 4:29 PM on June 23

I keep hearing Harley-Davidson is in trouble and that its customers are dying off, but every time I go riding (in northeast USA) at least half of the bikes I see are Harleys. I get the appeal -- my first bike was an air-cooled UJM with hardly a plastic part to be found. I probably chose it because it's the Platonic image of "motorcycle" that is most deeply embedded in my subconscious. How it got there, I don't know -- probably Henry Winkler put it there, and he doesn't even know how to ride.

After a few months of training wheels I decided to get something with actual power, that can climb hills without wheezing, can quickly pass semi's on the freeway, and while thankfully not as loud as a Harley still sounds pretty exciting, i.e. a Ducati. And like Harley dudes, Ducatistas tend to wax poetic about their brand's styling, heritage, and yes, exhaust note. (Which I am doing now, I know).

In the case of Ducati, the exhaust sounds the way it does because Ducati have been making variations on this engine forever, in their racing bikes and their production line. The engine sounds badass because it is, not because it was engineered to sound badass.
posted by swift at 5:05 PM on June 23 [1 favorite]

Harley's have archaic engineering smothered in marketing crap. Their brand is synonymous with ignorance, racism, and violence. Trying to trademark a sound is just dumb. That's right on brand for them.

If you're in the mood for an entertaining but thorough kicking, Ryan from Fort Nine explains how HD ended up here and why their engines are so weak:
How Harley-Davidson Killed Itself
How Indian Makes 43% More Power than Harley-Davidson
posted by happyinmotion at 5:15 PM on June 23 [4 favorites]

trying to trademark a sound is just dumb.

Not inherently. Fundamentally, a trademark is something that identifies a product or service as being from a particular source and distinguishes them from other sources. Traditionally this has been an image or text, but it doesn't have to be, as long as whatever it is fulfills that function.

For example, NBC was granted a trademark (or, more accurately, a sound service mark) for its signature chimes in 1950. If you're American, you can probably hear those chimes in your head when you read "NBC chimes", especially in 1950. There are a number of other sounds strongly associated with certain brands or products/services that you probably know (MGM's lion roar, Intel's Pentium chord sequence, THX's "deep note", etc.) that have sound trademarks.

The problem here is that the Harley engine sound wasn't unique enough among bike manufacturers to be granted a sound trademark, or at least its competitors argued the point strongly enough to make it not worth HD's while.
posted by star gentle uterus at 7:00 PM on June 23

Not inherently.

Ok, let's be more precise. It's a dumb idea trying to trademark a sound when that sound is a result of a common engineering choice that multiple other companies are using.

It's still on brand.
posted by happyinmotion at 9:05 PM on June 23

The core problem here is the idea that the sound belongs to Harley because they spent so much effort and money creating it. The truth is the sound that already existed, because that's how v-twin engines sound, more or less.

Harley is a huge marketing success story - their bikes are slow, have poor handling and are woefully uncomfortable and inefficient. But people love them because they've been the most successful at pushing the easy rider lifestyle that, apparently, just magically comes to you when you own a loud motorbike. Well, unless you own a Ducati that, as previously pointed out, has a distinctive sound different to a Harley because that's what a tough, high-performance V-Twin sounds like as opposed to a low-revving agricultural V-Twin.
posted by dg at 5:30 PM on June 27

Damn! Some serious Harley hatred here; I won’t take it personally and flame out though. But if you live near me I will drive by your house late at night on my 1994 FLSTF with straight pipes and rev the shit out of my engine. Of course, late night at my age is about 8:30-9:00 PM, so I might get your attention in time to see one of the really cool sunsets we’ve had here lately.
posted by TedW at 11:49 AM on June 30

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