Protecting the Super Bowl trademark remains a battle


The Super Bowl might be the talk of the town, but one won't hear the words "Super Bowl" or other references to the NFL's trademarked terms on radio, television, in print or on the Internet beyond what is officially licensed by the league. That's because football's most effective offense isn't a product of Peyton Manning's arm; it's the National Football League's squad of in-house lawyers who are particularly aggressive in enforcing intellectual property rights against so-called "ambush marketers."

Led by vp intellectual property Anastasia Danias, the league's eight-person department of trademark and copyright specialists (and a handful of private law firms) sends out thousands of letters to global advertising giants each year, reminding them not to state or imply that their products are associated with sports' biggest event. The letters even set guidelines for what the NFL believes can and cannot be said in a promotional context. Terms that are off limits include "Super Bowl," "Super Sunday" and "NFL," while the phrases "The Big Game in Miami" or "Professional Football Championship" are deemed permissible.

When anyone from a national advertiser to a local bar owner doesn't comply, a cease-and-desist letter is likely in the mail. If the use persists, lawsuits are not uncommon, as big brands such as Coors Brewing Co. learned the hard way. But the NFL's broad interpretation of what constitutes "commercial" use has many trademark lawyers believing the NFL oversteps its rights.

"If Joe's Bar wants to run a 2-for-1 special for the Super Bowl, I don't see how that's trading off of the good will and property rights of the NFL," says attorney Belinda May of Sonnenschein Nath & Rosenthal, citing fair use law.

In fact, many believe the NFL bullies away future sponsors by vigorously protecting its current deals. Danias refutes that theory.

"It's noteworthy that after we pursued Coors, they became one of our business partners," she says, referring to a $240 million, four-year sponsorship deal the beer company renewed in 2005.

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