Tag Archives: NFL

The Bus (the NFL trademark bus, that is) rides again…

With the Pittsburgh Steelers’ sixth Super Bowl (err, I mean “Big Game“) victory, local fans are quick to make merchandise celebrating.  And the NFL is quick to demand that those fans cease and desist from manufacture of that merchandise under copyright and trademark law.  While I can completely understand the NFL’s enforcement efforts for blatant knock-offs, the latest victim was this T-shirt, which did not feature the words “Pittsburgh,” “Steelers,” the Steelers logo, and only sort of approximated the Steelers’ color scheme.  Yet, the manufacturer made one fatal mistake:  He included an image of the Lombardi trophy.

The logo that caught the ever-watchful eye of the NFL
The logo that caught the ever-watchful eye of the NFL

The NFL sent Dan Rugh, owner of CommonWealth Press on the South Side and the Web site where the shirts were sold, a cease-and-desist order Wednesday stating use of the Lombardi Trophy design violates an NFL registered trademark and copyrighted design.

The NFL also objected to the use of a new trademark, SIXBURGH, even though the NFL has not used the mark, and it includes only the “mashing” of “Pittsburgh” and “six.”

“We have also learned that your company is producing and offering for sale SIX BURGH shirts using the colors of the Pittsburgh Steelers Club,” the NFL’s letter stated. “These elements, particularly in combination, clearly misappropriate the goodwill enjoyed by the Pittsburgh Steelers Club, which now has won six NFL Championships.”

The NFL objects to the use of the team colors or any other indication or likeness of the Pittsburgh Steelers, including the designation Sixburgh, “as that’s likely to confuse consumers who might mistakenly believe that the shirts were authorized by the Steelers or the NFL,” NFL spokesman Dan Masonson said.

[…]

In an interesting twist, the NFL could receive a cease-and-desist order of its own. The NFL Shop at http://www.nflshop.com has been selling “Six-Burgh” T-shirts.

SmartArt, LLC of Queenstown, Md., applied for the trademark to the term “SixBurgh” on Jan. 14 for T-shirts, sweatshirts, caps and jackets and the company didn’t license the term’s use to the NFL. SmartArt has been marketing SIXBURGH T-shirts featuring James Harrison’s signature.

“We’ve done well with it,” said Fred Fillah, SmartArt’s marketing director. “I did a lot of research on ‘SixBurgh.’ Prior to us trademarking it, there wasn’t anything. I couldn’t find it anywhere. I did due diligence. You’ve got to respect other people’s rights and what’s considered fair.”

Mr. Fillah said his attorney will be investigating whether the NFL has violated his trademark.

“To the extent the term SixBurgh is being used in a context that refers to the Pittsburgh Steelers, only the team or its authorized representative, in this case NFL Properties, may use it,” the NFL spokesman, Mr. Masonson said.

The NFL is great at arguing that it has rights to trademarks that it hadn”t used (or necessarily thought of).  It won a case when the L.A. Rams moved to St. Louis against a person who attempted to register “ST LOUIS RAMS” before the NFL and then hold the NFL hostage for trademark licensing rights. (I’ll look for the citation.)  The Court found that the early announcements of the team’s move and other uses gave the NFL priority.  But it would seem to me that this is a different situation, particuarly if the applicant for SIXBURGH did not attempt to hold the NFL hostage when it filed its application. After all, SIXBURGH can refer to nothing more than the city that houses the team that has won six NFL national championships, not necessarily the team that actually won the championships.  How ironic it would be if discovery showed that the NFL marketing guys “discovered” the SIXBURGH application and then “suddenly,” beliving the mark to be owned by the NFL through some sort of doctrine of implication, created merchandise with the mark.

If SmartArt has some money to spend and has the smarts to get an experienced trademark firm, this may be an interesting case.

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Filed under Law, Trademarks

Up against bars, news stations, local merchants sure, but God? No.

There have been numerous posts around the blogosphere about the NFL’s annual witch hunt for IP infringers (LIKELIHOOD OF CONFUSION’s Ron Coleman has a particularly good ones) who either (a) use the words “Super Bowl” in connection with a good, service or promotion, or (b) attempt to display the Super Bowl game itself on a television larger than 55 inches, or charge for admission to a “Super Bowl” viewing.

The Big Game? (I swear I havent copied this logo, and I disclaim any perceived affiliation with the NFL!)

"The Big Game"? (I swear I haven't copied this logo, and I disclaim any perceived affiliation with the NFL!)

Well, the NFL may be able to sue bars for putting the game on too big of a screen, or threaten injunctions against retailers who want to say something like “your Super Bowl party snack headquarters”, but it gets stopped in its tracks when it goes after God.  From this report from OneNewsNow (a division of the “American Family News Network”):

Churches can show the Super Bowl on big-screen TVs without fear of violating copyright laws.

In 2007, many churches cancelled Super Bowl parties after the National Football League (NFL) warned an Indiana church that it would be illegal to show the game on anything larger than a 55-inch screen. But members of Congress threatened to change copyright laws, and the NFL dropped the restriction beginning with this year’s Super Bowl.

[…]

“These organizations may show the game on any monitor, and we only ask these organizations to not charge admission — the game’s on free TV — and to hold the party at a location they usually use for other large gatherings,” [an NFL spokesperson] explains. According to the guidelines agreed to, churches may take up a donation to defray the cost of the event, if they desire.

That’s right, at least according to this report, members of Congress threatened to change copyright law to allow churches to show the Super Bowl on big screen TVs.  Because nothing says America like football and God, together under one roof.

Now, I’m all for churches showing the Super Bowl.  In fact, I belonged to a church that had a “SOUPER Bowl” party (a soup and sandwich potluck before the game started), and even though the broadcasting of the game was not part of the itinerary, I’m sure some people stayed at the church, and maybe even brought out the projection TV to show the game on a wall in the fellowship hall.  But why can’t the Fraternal order of Eagles do it? If anyone says that our country is secular, just look at the decision the otherwise IP-stodgy NFL has made here.

Further, why can’t my wife’s evite for our party have the words “Super Bowl” on the graphic, or even the Super Bowl logo? It’s certainly a descriptive  fair use (most likely a “traditional” fair use, although the “nominative” fair use exceptions may also apply) to describe the purpose for our events.    Perhaps Ron Coleman put it best:

It’s the overselling that’s offensive, because of course the NFL has a trademark right to SUPER  BOWL.  But like all IP owners, the league has set up a campaign not only to protect its legitimate rights but a buffer of illegimate intimidation-based quasi-rights around the real thing.

This buffer zone not only establishes a zone of litigation-based (not legal-based, litigation-based) early warning triggers around the real rights, such that any would-be infringer on the trademark would have to traverse the hopelessly expensive no-man’s land of illegitimate litigation threats.  It also has an even more insidious effect of actually causing an expansion of the original right itself.  It does this by actually enhancing the perceived “untouchability” of the real trademark, i.e., its isolation in the market, cinching the future results of consumer surveys and other indices (including, of course, the claim that mark holder “vigorously enforces” its rights) that could be used in a future trademark infringement or dilution claim. This is a privilege Congress, but far more so the judiciary, the latter of which almost never enforces the extant, if weak, fee-shifting provisions of the Lanham Act, have reserved exclusively to wealthy trademark owners.

So when you go to watch The Big Game this Sunday, at your church, at your home or at a purveyor of libations, please, take a moment, and enjoy the spectacle of intellectual property rights that abound.

… Oh, and call it the Super Bowl, just once. But maybe think twice before watching it on Frank’s 2000-inch TV.

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Filed under First Amendment, Law, Society, Trademarks