It’s fall, and you know what that means: football season! For many, this means a return to the couch each weekend to spectate America’s most-watched sport. But the popularity of doing so appears to be in decline. This shift isn’t only affecting the NFL, but also college football as well, as ticket sales continue to plummet. Increasingly among my own family and friends, it seems as if everyone is more interested in playing their fantasy leagues than watching reality unfold before them. Which is why, one would think, that leagues and other football organizations would want to promote discussion about football, rather than hinder it.

Credit: Geek.com

But football organizations are cracking down on, rather than encouraging, use of familiar football names and phrases. Some have questioned, for example, the NFL’s bully-like tactics in aggressively protecting the “Superbowl” name. The annual “big game” is so well-known and such a major event that it’s almost impossible not to use its actual name. Yet, the NFL persists, enforcing more than just its famous name, drawing the ire of commentators each year.

Such tactics appear to have inspired a recent filing by the Heisman Trophy Trust against “HeismanWatch.com,” for trademark and copyright infringement. The Heisman Trophy Trust, the complaint says, is the owner of a slew of federal trademark and service mark registrations related to the Heisman Trophy, “one of the most distinguished, prestigious, and recognized awards in all of sports, and perhaps the most famous of all individual awards in football.” The award is given to the most outstanding collegiate football player, usually a quarterback or running back, each year. You might recognize the trophy by its distinctive “stiff-arm” maneuver captured in bronze:

Credit: The Ringer

Defendant HeismanWatch.com is a website that offers information, analysis, and podcasts about the Heisman trophy award. It is known for its “one-of-a-kind regression model that processes simulated Heisman votes,” to predict in advance who will win the Heisman each year. It reportedly correctly predicted the most recent winner, Baker Mayfield.

The Heisman Trophy Trust, apparently, does not appreciate HeismanWatch.com’s analysis and attention. It alleges that the website is deliberately attempting to free ride on the fame and notoriety of the Heisman Trophy marks, and it says that consumers are likely to believe there is a connection between the website and the actual trophy organization. Of course, the fact that HeismanWatch.com exists at all belies any such connection; the Trophy selection is secretive, but the website helps fans read the field and guess who will win next.

Time will tell whether the Heisman Trophy Trust can prevail against a news reporting and commentary organization like HeismanWatch.com, but it’s not unprecedented. The Academy Awards sued “OscarWatch.com” over a decade ago, prompting the website to change its name to “Awards Daily.” One cannot help but think that HeismanWatch.com has an incredibly strong nominative use defense, though. Under nominative use doctrine, another person can use the trademark of another if:

  1. the thing identified by the trademark (here, a trophy) cannot be readily identified any other way;
  2. the mark is used only as much as is necessary for that identification; and
  3. the use does not suggest sponsorship or endorsement.

The nominative use defense protects free speech and against the need to use “absurd turns of phrase” to avoid liability.

Credit: Wikipedia

It’s difficult to imagine a viable substitute to the name “Heisman,” given the trophy’s actual name–and namesake. What alternatives are there to HeismanWatch.com that do not include the surname? One commentator  offered an idea:

BestOffensivePlayerWithAGreatPRCampaignOnAVerySuccessfulTeamWatch.com.

Of course, this is absurd. And generic alternatives would fail to adequately describe what the website does (e.g., OutstandingCollegiateFootballPlayerWatch.com). One also doesn’t have to look much farther than a simple Google search to find that the media regularly uses “Heisman Watch” as a phrase to discuss anticipation about the next awardee. Even ESPN has a section called “Heisman Watch.” This kind of ubiquity shows the obvious necessity of using the surname. The common use of the phrase also suggests there is a very low likelihood that collegiate football fans are confusing the website–or any other reporting source–with the actual trophy organization. These are hallmarks of fair use.

But setting aside the legal defenses, one has to wonder if organizations such as the Heisman Trophy Trust, NCAA, and NFL ought to relax a little, and encourage the kind of use presented by sites like HeismanWatch.com. These fan centers generate excitement about, and interest in, football. That’s something football desperately needs more of lately.

As we move into Week 2 of the NFL, the big clash in North Country is Sunday’s Green Bay Packers – Minnesota Vikings game. All the buzz is whether the second-coming-of-Favre Aaron Rodgers will prevail over the vaunted Vikings defense. But here in my trademark bubble, I’m more interested in the Jacksonville Jaguars versus former Jaguar player Dan Skuta. This isn’t a contract negotiation battle, but instead a dispute over who owns the claimed trademark rights in the word SACKSONVILLE. The dispute is now the subject of a pending opposition at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board.

In the Notice of Opposition to the team’s application, Skuta claims to have been the first to coin the term “Sacksonville,” back in July of 2015, but his pending application was refused based on a possible likelihood of confusion with the team’s already filed application. He created a Twitter account and hired a graphic designer to create the logo below, which appears on Skuta’s website.

 

In the team’s application to register the claimed #SACKSONVILLE mark, the Jaguars claim a first use date of September 1, 2017.  However, the team has the ability to present evidence of use earlier than the date of first use listed in the application. One article notes that the team has used the phrase as a social media hash tag at least as early as 2013. But in most circumstances, merely using a word as a social media hashtag does not constitute use in commerce.

Unsurprisingly, one local Jacksonville news outlet is skeptical, siding with the team over a “forgettable linebacker . . . who may have been better at anticipating trademark uses than he was at reading offenses.”

It is possible that Skuta may have used the mark in commerce before the team. Skuta hasn’t made his case any easier by including in the logo what appears to be a jaguar skull and the same Jacksonville Jaguar teal color. On top of this, the play on words with “Jacksonville” potentially creates association with the team, too.

It’s a bit of a mess: are there even any trademark rights and, if so, who owns them? It seems the team likely should be the owner, but perhaps they fumbled the rights along the way. We may have to wait for the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to weight in to see who emerges from the scrum with the ball.

Well, it is the end of February and the Super Bowl hangover in Minneapolis might finally be over. But that doesn’t mean there isn’t still time to analyze trademarks related to the Big Game. Much ado was made about the Eagles’ “Philly Special” trick play.  When a catch phrase is born, it is often followed by trademark filings by opportunistic individuals or those teams, businesses, or celebrities associated with the mark in the first place.  Typically these filings are for apparel items and other novelty items like we saw with the Minneapolis Miracle.

PHILLY SPECIAL is a little “special” in this case because, while there were filings by the Philadelphia Eagles and individuals (presumably, Eagles fans) from Texas to New Jersey to Florida for the mark for apparel and novelty items, the historic Yuengling brewery also filed for PHILLY SPECIAL for use in connection with beer.  They even seemed to have a marketing strategy forming behind it and, well, Yuengling’s logo also incorporates an eagle.  A natural fit.  If you aren’t familiar with Yuengling, it’s a brewery based in Pottsville, Pennsylvania and the oldest operating brewery in the U.S.  It also has a bit of a cult following throughout the East Coast – you know, where there are Patriots fans still reeling from a Super Bowl loss, Ravens fans, and most importantly that other NFL team in Pittsburgh and its Steeler Nation of fans.

With such a wide range of loyal drinkers, this trademark filing associating such an iconic brand with a team seems like an errant throw.  Yuengling expressly abandoned the application last week citing a desire to “allow the Eagles to have full, unfettered access to all rights and uses of the term ‘Philly Special.’”  While it’s unclear whether the Eagles asked Yuengling to withdraw the application (although I would be willing to bet that they did), the audible was probably the right call.

Plus, given certain factions of the Eagles fan base, who wants to have a Philly Special hurled at them?  That honor should only be reserved for Nick Foles with an actual football.

 

Not all ambush marketing is created equal. Some can cross the line and create a likelihood of confusion as to sponsorship. Some falsely advertises. But, some is totally fair use and lawful.

This current promotional banner by La-Z-Boy is capitalizing on the excitement surrounding the upcoming Super Bowl weekend festivities, but without reasonable risk of heat from the NFL:

The same can be said for this Lunds & Byerlys in-store signage, with the local grocery chain having tiptoed around the issue entirely by using the Big Game code word instead:

Love the fine-print shout out to local darling, Surly’s Cynic Pale Ale, and the additional shout out to Surly’s “Over Rated” — and clever jab at West Coast IPAs — thankfully no risk of offending all the visiting fans from the East Coast for Super Bowl LII.

By the way, since the Home Team, won’t be playing, merely hosting, which team do you favor from the East Coast, the Philadelphia Eagles or the New England Patriots?

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.”

Courtesy: PBS

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:

Courtesy: Twitter

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.

Downtown Minneapolis is starting to come alive for upcoming Super Bowl LII, you can feel the energy building and commerce flowing, new ads and signage being erected almost daily:

What do you think, is the Super Bowl reference in the above temporary sign, a fair use? More particularly, nominative fair use? I do. But, will the NFL agree? Stay tuned.

Wow, words don’t and could never describe the emotions behind the last ten second fourth-quarter TD and Vikings win over the New Orleans Saints — Who Dat Nation — last night in Minneapolis:

Hat tip on the title, to a lubricated fan leaving U.S. Bank Stadium after the game — the whole Dilly Dilly thing seems kind of silly, but it’s fun to say, thanks Anheuser-Busch and Wieden+Kennedy:

The Dilly Dilly marketing phrase has gone viral and taken on meme status, so beyond the intent-to-use filing by Anheuser-Busch, many third party trademark filings are piling on, stay tuned.

Meanwhile, the Vikings are one step closer to Super Bowl LII . . . .

We continue to have Super Bowl LII on our minds here in the Twin Cities. It’s hard to avoid thinking about the upcoming “Big Game” with ads like these blanketing our skyway maze:

Turns out, everyone wants to have a little piece of the action in this upcoming event, even without the formality and cost associated with sponsorship, some call it ambush marketing:

Ambush marketing is not necessarily unlawful. It’s tricky, but I’m guessing the above ad may have cleared a legal review. No obvious conflicts with federally-registered rights, it appears.

Having said that, does this little guy change your view on things? Look familiar? It appears to be the same Wilson NFL Pee Wee Touchdown football without the name brands shown:

I’m thinking the JB Hudson ad employed a little airbrush strategy, or at least some strategic and highly precise palm expansion and placement in hiding the Wilson and NFL logos.

Actually, if so, it’s a good move, but will it be enough — especially given this website link — to avoid the aggressive NFL Super Bowl sponsorship police?

Who owns rights in TOUCHDOWN for footballs, if anyone? Anyone?

Neither Wilson nor the NFL appear to own federally-registered rights in TOUCHDOWN for footballs, but do common law rights exist?

If so, who owns them, the NFL or the maker of the NFL’s official game footballs, Wilson?

Moreover, did legal review consider non-verbal marks? What about the stitching design bordering the football laces? Non-traditional trademark? Functional? If not functional, fair use?

So much to think about as we anxiously await the Big Game in our own chilly backyard . . . .

We’ve come a long way from April 1, 2017, until now, with the steady drumbeat — and ads galore — in preparation for the upcoming Super Bowl LII in downtown Minneapolis:

As the NFL promotes use of the SBLII hashtag, it is preparing to do battle, or at least stand in the way, of another hashtag mark that the USPTO published for opposition: #HereWeGo.

Turns out, the NFL and the Pittsburgh Steelers appear to be concerned with Jennifer Menichini’s application to federally register #HereWeGo for a variety of clothing items.

I’m guessing that the Steelers believe they have standing to try and block registration of Menichini’s claimed mark based on the Steeler’s fight song, apparently called “Here We Go.”

Stay tuned to see whether this results in a formal trademark opposition, as the deadline for the NFL and Steelers is currently the day before Super Bowl LII: February 3, 2018.

Today marks the 25th anniversary of the filing of the petition to cancel the R-Word registrations held by Pro-Football, Inc., the NFL franchise playing near the Nation’s capital.

Indian Country Today has published an interview with Suzan Shown Harjo, lead petitioner in Harjo et al v. Pro-Football, Inc., and organizer of Blackhorse et al v. Pro-Football, Inc.

Thanks to Indian Country Today and Suzan Shown Harjo for sharing this interview. Its documentation of history is so important for anyone who cares where we’ve been as a country and where we’re headed; it is valuable and timeless, powerful and compelling.

I’m so thankful to Suzan for the opportunity to play a small part in this long yet unfinished history, and here is a photo of us together on May 15, 2015, at a conference in Hinckley, Minnesota, during a celebration honoring her lifetime of advocacy for Native peoples:

Suzan’s heretofore and ongoing work is truly remarkable and a testament to who she is, even in the face of ignorant vitriol, and to how many lives she has touched and continues to touch in such a profound, generous, and meaningful way.

As I reflect on the historic petition to cancel we filed together on September 10, 1992, one thing I can’t get out of my mind is the national press conference question I answered from the Washington D.C. press corps, something like “what about the First Amendment?”

As I recall, my response was, something like, the beauty of this cause of action is that the First Amendment is not implicated because removing the federal government’s erroneous approval of the racial slur doesn’t compel the team to change the name, having said that, it is of course our hope that the team does the right thing and pick another name.

Who could have guessed it would take nearly a quarter century to reverse prior court of appeals precedent (McGinley) saying Section 2(a) did not violate Free Speech or the First Amendment, and then to have the Supreme Court agree that refusing federal registration of disparaging matter under Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act is viewpoint discrimination and a violation of Free Speech.

Thankfully much awareness has been raised and good has been done over the past quarter century, while the NFL and Washington franchise double down together on their joint investment to retain exclusive rights in a racial slur.

Hopefully with increased awareness raised and the movement and pressure continuing, we won’t have to wait another quarter century for justice and clearer thinking on this issue by the NFL, FEDEX, and other NFL sponsors, if not Daniel Snyder himself.

As I reflect back a quarter century ago, to the day, it was never about banning the team’s Freedom of Speech, it was about removing the federal government’s approval of a racial slur as a federally-registered trademark, and providing team ownership with a financial incentive to reconsider their choice to ignore the obvious, as Suzan has noted:

“We liked the approach of a pocketbook incentive case that did not force a name-change, but counted on the greed of the team owner to drop the name if exclusive federal trademarks were cancelled.”

“The pocketbook approach put things squarely where pro sports differed from educational sports: money. In most name and symbol changes made in educational sports, we had a way of discussing the issues and solutions, because there almost always were educators and officials who genuinely cared about the well-being of the students. In pro sports, even the health and safety issues seemed focused on liability and not on human beings, and some paid fans seemed physically provocative, while others seemed orchestrated online to attack and defame those of us who were challenging the NFL franchise in orderly legal forums.”

“Another reason I liked the pocketbook approach was that it didn’t impede anyone’s free speech. I was at WBAI-FM  in 1973, when the “seven dirty words” case started down the road to the Supreme Court’s 1978 ruling against free speech. The free speech flagship station of the Pacifica network, WBAI aired a cut from Comedian George Carlin’s “Class Clown” album and a listener complained to the Federal Communications Commission that his young son was wrongly exposed to dirty words. George Carlin’s “Seven Words You Can Never Say on Television” was based on an earlier routine by Comedian Lenny Bruce that was an excuse for one of his many arrests and jailings for using dirty words. The upshot of FCC v. Pacifica Foundation was that the federal government can restrict free speech in certain instances, the opposite of the Court’s 2017 ruling in The Slants case against the PTO, which rendered part of the trademark law unconstitutional as violative of the First Amendment. We never thought we were violating the NFL’s freedom of expression by using the same section of the trademark law.”

Ironically, as team owner Daniel Synder freely and proudly admits, the team’s ability and commitment to continue using the name will never change, even in the face of the mountain of evidence demonstrating its offensiveness and meaning as a racial slur, and even in the face of losing on the merits three times (twice at the TTAB, once at the E.D. Va.), or more.

So much for the Supreme Court’s concern that Section 2(a) actually chills Freedom of Speech, because according to Snyder, even after losing on the merits he has reaffirmed: “We will never change the name of the team,” “It’s that simple. NEVER — you can use caps.”

So, in the end, it is about the money, and the NFL clearly has had sufficient funds to defend the indefensible for a quarter century now, so isn’t it time FEDEX and other NFL sponsors step up and get on the right side of this issue, with their money? Let’s all follow the money.

Here’s to you Suzan, be well, Aho.