Did Harley-Davidson patent the sound of its motorcycles? Do plants get cancer?

September 15, 2000

Dear Cecil:

A few days ago a colleague at work asked me, "Does Harley-Davidson have a patent on the sound of their exhaust?" I thought he was kidding. I never heard of the government granting a patent on a particular sound. Then a friend of mind told me H-D won a lawsuit against one of the "rice burner" bike manufacturers because they had (electronically) duplicated the sound of the Harley! What gives? Can you really patent the exhaust sound of an infernal — strike that — internal-combustion engine?

Cecil replies:

Not a patent, Jens. A trademark. You patent an invention; you secure trademark rights in a symbol associated with your company or product. Sure, you can get one on a sound. MGM registered the roar of its lion as a trademark, and NBC registered its three-toned chime as a service mark. Hadn't heard that chime in years, but as soon as I saw it mentioned, it popped into my mind, practical proof that sounds can be potent symbols. Trouble is, when I think of Harley, I think of Hell's Angels, the Harley logo, and the word hog (which Harley also tried to register). But — and I realize this may say negative things about my testosterone level — I don't think of a particular sound, which might explain why Harley withdrew its application to register the engine sound earlier this year.

Harley aficionados, and of course the company itself, see it differently. To them the Harley sound, said to resemble "potato-potato-potato," is as distinctive as the Energizer bunny. (Judge for yourself with the sound clips at newsport.sfsu.edu/archive/f96/sounds/pending.html). When Japanese motorcycle makers began horning in on the Milwaukee company's hog market with their own heavy-duty bikes in the 1980s, Harley felt they were trying to duplicate the rumble of the V-Twin engine, which buyers supposedly seek out. Maybe, though if you ask me they mostly want something loud enough to scare the crap out of guys in Honda Civics. The Japanese put it more diplomatically when fighting Harley's trademark request, arguing that all big motorcycles sound pretty much the same. After six years of legal proceedings and no resolution in sight, Harley caved, claiming it had won in the court of public opinion, etc. Just as well. Can you imagine the trademark infringement suits?

Harley lawyer: "Your honor, our competitor's ripoff of our product purposely goes potato-potato-potato."

Rice-burner lawyer: "Nonsense, it goes poTAHto-poTAHto-poTAHto. Motion to call the whole thing off."

Dear Cecil:

I know this question is going to sound oddball, but do plants get cancer? Considering the fact that plants grow, as do all living things, via cellular division, can some of these cell growths become cancerous? And if so, do any such growths threaten the life of the plant, as they do with animal life?

Cecil replies:

Not in the same way that humans do. This is the thing about being a plant: it's not the world's most exciting gig, you get bitten by aphids, but at least you're not going to get malignant melanoma — or malignant anything else. That's because you lack the circulatory system that enables cancers to metastasize (spread) in animals. You can, however, get tumorlike growths. For example, trees and other woody plants get galls, tissue masses caused by the bacterial plant pathogen Agrobacterium tumefaciens. This produces a plant-growth regulator (or deregulator) called tumor-inducing principle. According to Donald Marx, chief scientist with planthealthcare.com, a gall in the root crown of a three-foot-diameter tree can grow to eight feet in diameter. Another Agrobacterium species causes "hairy-root disease," a cancerlike proliferation of root tissue. Various fungi and viruses can cause cankers to grow in the tree's trunk. With rare exceptions these growths won't kill their host. In the deal-with-it manner of all plants, the tree just grows around the tumor — another benefit of being a plant. On the other hand, with a human tumor, you don't need a backhoe to get it out.

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