Over the last decade, we’ve covered Super Bowl topics, it’s that time of year again!

We’ve probed the NFL’s overzealous activities and asked hard fair use questions.

And, with Big Game LII in our backyard, we had a front row ambush marketing seat.

With digital marketing, that front row seat can be anywhere your iPhone takes you:

The top half of the email advertisement from Tuesday, landing in my inbox (shown above), seems to have a better argument for a nominative fair use defense than the the bottom half of the same ad (shown below), agree?

Assuming Birch’s is not an actual licensee, seems to me a rather difficult argument that use of the Super Bowl LIII logo is really fair and necessary for communicating truthfully, but, what say you?

UPDATE:

Hot off the email press and inbox from yesterday, here is another Super Bowl ambush, note their favoring of “Big Game” over “Super Bowl”:

So, they may have avoided the NFL’s wrath, but what about the Patriots and Rams logos on the helmets, fair use, or not, friends?

Here’s to looking at you again, James!

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.

When can a brand owner lawfully use a competitor’s trademark on the brand owner’s product?

Over the years, we’ve lifted away a lot of dust on the hairy subjects of classic trademark fair use, nominative fair use, and comparative advertising, especially in the context of billboard ads.

It isn’t every day we see comparative billboard ads actually affixed to a product in question, so I can’t resist sharing this vacuum cleaner canister that captures all of these legal allergens at once:

For those unfamilar with the fierce competition between the Shark and Dyson vacuum brands, above is a cropped photo of a Shark Lift-Away canister vacuum, from my home closet.

As you can see, the label affixed to the canister portion of the vacuum actually refers to the competing Dyson brand twice. Just imagine what our friend James Mahoney might be thinking.

Why would the leading household vacuum cleaner brand — Shark — stoop to give its competitor Dyson free mentions (albeit negative) and publicity? Isn’t that kind of like punching down?

Actually, I’m not sure whether Shark had yet surpassed Dyson as market leader, when the canister left the store and entered our closet, so the above label might have been a punch up?

And, if comparative advertising induces sales, why does someone who already purchased the product need more reminders — with each use — that Dyson sucks, in more ways than one?

Turns out, the label shown above, as we now know, is fairly easily removed, so I suppose the joke is really on us, for leaving this comparative advertising on the product for more than a long while.

One of the dangers in affixing comparative advertising claims or content to the product itself may be, over time the claim might lose its original truth; perhaps that’s why the label is removable?

Aren’t digital advertising billboards amazing? My iPhone captured this rolling series of images just yesterday, for a health care organization using the Google trademark in the Minneapolis skyway:

My questions, permission, co-branding, no permission, but classic or nominative fair use?

Is Google flattered? Free advertising? Do they care? Should they care?

Discuss, to quote John Welch, on another subject.

Carvanaonline car dealer and operator of “a higher state of car buying” — sports a halo in its non-verbal logo shown above, but is it an angel when using the Google name and logo in t.v. ads?

In other words, is the use licensed by Google or could it be defended successfully without permission as trademark nominative fair use? Dear readers, what do you think?

In the meantime, a good friend Steve Feingold (who wears a halo well), will be delivering a Strafford webinar next month on Co-branding — maybe we can ask him to weigh in on this topic?

Remember this North Memorial Health billboard ad — sporting a plain and literal Google reference — that we wrote about a few months ago, where nominative fair use was pretty clear to me?

Well, a new set of North Memorial billboard ads rolled into to the Minneapolis skyway system, just in time for Super Bowl LII, with essentially the same message, but without a Google mention.

Do you think Google was behind North Memorial’s move away from the Google reference, or was it part of the original plan to grab attention, then migrate to a more generic online search mention?

Does North Memorial showing it is able to communicate essentially the same idea without Google’s help impact the nominative fair use analysis? So, how do you come down on this one?

In case you’re wondering why I’m not writing about Super Bowl LII and the television commercials, as has been typical here on the day after, let’s say I’m still letting it sink in, so stay tuned.

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.

North Memorial Health must be spending significant advertising dollars at the moment, with a variety of ads appearing all over the Minneapolis skyway system, above is one current example.

In addition, there are a series of humorous and sarcastic TV ads that were designed to poke the bear of our broken health care system, congrats to Brandfire on their creative work here.

The current ad campaign follows the health system’s rebrand and slight truncation earlier this year, from North Memorial Health Care to North Memorial Health:

“The brand campaign consists of TV, out of home, digital and print advertisements. It pokes fun at the industry by showing experiences of customers and attitudes of healthcare that are universally frustrating.  The print and outdoor advertisements also demonstrate that North Memorial Health accepts its share of the blame, but commits to working harder to deliver an unmatched experience for the customer.”

So, I guess, if patients admit to having Googled their symptons prior to their appointment, they will no longer be scolded for doing so by doctors, nurses, and other health care providers, right?

But, what about the glaring Google reference in the above skyway ad, did North Memorial Health need permission from Google for the gratuitous reference?

You may recall, a few years back I wrote about Google surviving a genericness challenge (Tucker and Jessica have provided updates), drawing attention to possible meanings of the word Google:

“The word google has four possible meanings in this case: (1) a trademark designating the Google search engine; (2) a verb referring to the act of searching on the internet using the Google search engine; (3) a verb referring to the act of searching on the internet using any search engine; and (4) a common descriptive term for search engines in general.”

Seems to me, in the North Memorial Health ad shown above, Google could be understood as the verb meanings in both (2) and (3), as the capitalization doesn’t point uniquely to Google.

There is little doubt that no Google permission is required for the ad, because nominative fair use ought to apply, given the plausible, but not required meaning of the above definition in (2).

More interesting to me though, is the question of whether classic fair use could apply as well to the Google use, given the plausible, but not required meaning of Google in definition (3) above.

If so, I’m not sure I’ve encountered an example or case before where both classic and nominative fair use applied, perhaps this is a first, so what do you really think, without Googling it, of course?

Over the weekend, the Star Tribune continued the growing drum beat of understandable excitement for Super Bowl LII, as it steadily approaches U.S. Bank Stadium in Minneapolis.

The article also plays the typical NFL-enabling drum beat of caution against local businesses that might see fit to fairly and truthfully reference the Super Bowl in some commercial manner:

“From the NFL’s viewpoint, if businesses use the terms or other trademarks, it could appear like it is an official part of the Super Bowl or its related events, said Dolores DiBella, one of the lead intellectual property attorneys for the NFL.”

Perhaps the NFL would like to live in a world where no business can use the words “Super Bowl” without paying a fee; that isn’t the world we live in, especially given the growing judicial drum beat and emphasis on Free Speech and the First Amendment in the trademark/copyright worlds.

Nowhere in the article is there any acknowledgement that the NFL has long been accused of behaving as a trademark bully and overreaching with its valuable intellectual property rights.

The legal test for trademark infringement (likelihood of confusion) is not shown when a use “could appear like it is an official part of the Super Bowl or its related events,” the mere possibility is simply not enough, the likelihood of confusion must be probable.

Nowhere in the article is there any mention of trademark fair use; classic or nominative fair use. Nowhere is there any mention of Free Speech or the First Amendment. Even, this kind.

And, for those wondering whether the Super Bowl trademark might be famous and deserving of dilution protection, let’s not forget, the future of trademark dilution law is in question.

So, while it is true that not uttering the words “Super Bowl” will help a business play it safe and avoid all the fire and fury of the NFL, for those who are properly advised and have insurance coverage for advertising injury, that would be a very big game worth watching (or playing) too.