Tis’ the season for football, not just on the gridiron, but also at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. Shortly after the “Minneapolis Miracle,” as we reported this week, the Minnesota Vikings applied for registered marks on the phrase. And with the “big game” approaching, teams have titles on the mind–even those that aren’t in contention (ahem, Green Bay Packers).
Just one week ago, the Green Bay Packers initiated an opposition proceeding with the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (the “TTAB”) against McClatchy U.S.A., a publishing company associated with the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. The dispute stems from the Star-Telegram‘s use of “Titletown, TX” as the title of a 20-short-video documentary series chronicling “the story of the 2016 Aledo [TX high school] Bearcats and their quest for a sixth state [football] title in eight years.”
The Packers have owned registered competing marks, such as “Titletown U.S.A.,” “Titletown,” and “Titletown Towel” since as early as 1993 (though, the Packers assert they have “made widespread and continuous use” of the marks since the 1960s). The Packers appear to have only begun policing the Titletown name at the TTAB since the start of this decade, however, filing five oppositions against related marks, such as “Title Town Talk Show” and “Titletown Brewing Co.”
The Titletown mark has acquired additional meaning and value to the Packers since the organization opened a development district by the same name outside Lambeau Field last year. The Packers invested almost $65M to complete the first phase of the district by this fall. The Titletown District includes a hotel, sports medicine clinic, ice skating rink, restaurant, and artificial tubing hill. And this summer, it got its own logo:
The Packers allege that the “Titletown, TX” mark and use in the Texas video documentary series creates a likelihood of confusion and dilutes the “Titletown” and related marks. Why? Because the Star-Telegram uses the mark in connection with football. And that conflicts with the general public’s wide recognition of the mark “as being associated with a single source, and further recognizing the single source as [the Packers].” And the Packers allege that the Titletown name is distinctive with regard to entertainment, video, news, and commentary related to football such that it has acquired secondary meaning. Not only that, but the Packers consider the mark “famous and exclusively associated with [the Packers] in the mind of the consuming public.”
Setting aside the high likelihood that several fanbases and regions across the United States would likely dispute the Packers’ allegations as to fame and widespread recognition and acceptance, the primary questions before the TTAB are whether the use of the “Titletown, TX” mark in the short-video series is likely to cause confusion, mistake, and/or deception as to the source or origin of goods and services. And, further, whether use of the mark is likely to dilute the distinct quality of the Packers’ marks.
Generally, the strength of a mark depends on whether it is arbitrary or fanciful, suggestive, or descriptive. Because the Packers argue distinctiveness and secondary meaning, the organization appears to contend that the mark is descriptive (the lowest strength outside of generic), implying that the Packers are title winners. And historically, this is true; the Packers have been league champions a record 13 times (9 more than the nearest rival team, the Chicago Bears). And the Packers have won three consecutive NFL titles twice. Interestingly, though, the Aledo Bearcats have also won three consecutive state titles twice. This could set up a descriptive fair use defense for Star-Telegram.
When it comes to likelihood of confusion, the primary factors include: whether the use is related, the strength of the mark, proximity of the use, similarities of the marks, evidence of actual confusion, marketing channels employed, the degree of care likely to be exercised by consumers, the user’s intent in selecting the mark, and the likelihood of expansion of product/service lines. The Packers might have a case, but not a very strong one. Star-Telegram‘s use may be related to how the Packers use the Titletown mark in some contexts. But the Packers use the Titletown mark in multiple ways, only one of which relates to reporting about football. Indeed, the Packers are beginning to use the mark more in connection with the new Titletown District. Star-Telegram‘s use is in a very different market: Texas vs. primarily Wisconsin. The use relates to different football leagues: high school vs. the NFL. And the marketing channels are different: online newspaper vs. broadcasts. Ultimately, it seems unlikely that a typical consumer would confuse the two uses: think cheeseheads vs. longhorns.
When it comes to dilution, the primary inquiry is whether the use of a mark is likely to impair the mark’s distinctiveness or harm the reputation of the famous mark. The Packers allege that “[a] recent survey concluded the term TITLETOWN is known to virtually the entire population of consumers surveyed and a substantial majority of those who are aware of the term TITLETOWN, associate it specifically with the Green Bay Packers.” This may demonstrate distinctiveness. On the other hand, it is difficult to see how a short-video series on successful high school football teams in Texas would harm the Titletown mark’s distinctiveness as to the Packers and professional football or harm the reputation of the mark.
McClatchy has until February 26, 2017 to answer the Packers’s opposition. By then, there will be a new reigning NFL titleholder, much to the envy of the allegedly-undisputed Titletown team. But even more to the Packers’s envy, the new titletown (or place of the title game) will technically be Minneapolis.