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Androvett Blog

by Robert Tharp at 3:15:00 pm

Super Bowl Mismatch: What happens when a legal novice goes up against the NFL’s trademark enforcers

From pizza delivery businesses and neighborhood bars to car dealerships and major retailers, the NFL’s Super Bowl has become a perennial marketing opportunity and cash cow. But businesses that try to crib on the NFL’s closely guarded and trademarked words, “Super Bowl,” without permission can expect to get stiff-armed by the league’s legal team. Ever notice how so many advertisements and marketing materials have migrated to using “The Big Game” as a legal euphemism for Super Bowl Sunday?

The experience of Roy Fox is the latest example of the NFL’s Dick Butkus approach to guarding its trademarks.  More than a year ago, the Indiana man had the premonition that one day the Super Bowl would feature a unique rivalry between two brothers who also happen to be head coaches: Jim and John Harbaugh. His idea: trademark the word “HarBowl” for t-shirts and other merchandise, and watch the money roll in. So Fox plunked down a $1,000 trademark application fee and set the application in motion.

Fox soon started getting calls from the NFL’s legal team, threatening the non-lawyer with stiff financial penalties if he didn’t voluntarily give up his trademark application for “HarBowl.” Clearly a true NFL fan and not a lawyer, Fox proceeded to negotiate his position all the way down to zero. He unsuccessfully offered to give up the trademark in exchange for some Indianapolis Colts tickets and an autographed photo of NFL commissioner Roger Goodell. As the legal blitz showed no sign of letting up, Fox finally took a knee and abandoned the effort.

Trademark and copyright attorney Amanda Greenspon of Dallas-based Munck Wilson Mandala says trademark owners of all kinds are obligated by law to protect and enforce their trademarks or risk losing them, but the NFL is widely known for its aggressive protection of its intellectual property.
“The NFL would have had to argue that it’s confusingly similar to the `Super Bowl’ trademark  or some other mark they already own,” she says. “I don’t think it’s as clear-cut as the NFL makes it sound, but it takes would have taken some resources to go up against the NFL.”