WWE Runs Into Judge's Smackdown in Advance of Wrestlemania (Exclusive)

Vince McMahon 2006 - H 2014
AP Photo/Frank Franklin II

Vince McMahon 2006 - H 2014

The best match at Wrestlemania 30 this Sunday at the Superdome in New Orleans might not be Daniel Bryan vs. Triple H, but rather WWE CEO Vince McMahon against 100 John Does.

McMahon is now being called a visionary media mogul for the WWE's cutting-edge launch in February of a new streaming network. Meanwhile, another move by the professional wrestling outfit has sparked a legal battle that could impact the future of live entertainment.

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On March 26, the WWE filed a lawsuit against various anonymous defendants charged with bootlegging unauthorized merchandise at Wrestlemania. The WWE attempted to keep much of it hush-hush with a joint motion to seal.

Such strong-arm legal tactics aren't uncommon. In the last few years, concert promoters around the nation have been increasingly stopping by courtrooms in advance of big music events to get restraining orders and the unfettered ability to seize unlicensed goods. The WWE itself has successfully attained such powers in the past decade in advance of showcase events in New York, Massachusetts, Florida, Texas, Georgia and New Jersey.

Not this time.

On Tuesday, U.S. District Judge Helen Berrigan issued an extraordinary ruling that stood up to the WWE's attempt to control the five miles surrounding the Superdome.

"The problem with Plaintiff’s request is apparent once one recalls that the order it requests is not directed against a single named, identified, or even described person—all the defendants are John Does, and Plaintiff provides no particular information about the identity of any of them," she wrote. "At best, Plaintiff defines Defendants almost tautologically: Defendants are anyone who would be a proper defendant within broad geographic and temporal limits."

The judge expresses some sympathy for the possibility that people will show up at Wrestlemania and cannibalize the WWE’s merchandise sales -- expected to be at least $19 million, according to WWE's court papers -- but she nonetheless denies the requested seizure orders. As the judge asks, "Does due process allow the Court to deputize a plaintiff to determine which goods are seizable, all while cloaking Plaintiff in the protection of a judicial order?"

The ruling has the potential of jarring others in entertainment. The judge makes note of those who have shared the WWE's situation including "the NFL, NBA, NASCAR, and touring musicians." In past years, the Superdome has hosted events including the Super Bowl, College Football Championship, the Final Four and an attendance-breaking concert by Beyonce.

Why the decision could be of importance is that Judge Berrigan has certified her order for an interlocutory appeal at the 5th Circuit Court of Appeals to address the WWE's request. On Wednesday, the WWE filed a motion for reconsideration.

In the meantime, the WWE has been denied use of elbows in its ongoing fight with bootleggers alleged to be infringing its trademarks. The company reports in court papers that past judicial orders have empowered them to seize goods including some 6,000 counterfeit T-shirts  as well as DVDs, action figures and posterboards at previous Wrestlemania events.

The WWE gave The Hollywood Reporter this statement:

"It is customary practice for all touring shows to ask for a temporary restraining order to prevent their fans from being sold counterfeit, inferior goods.  Merchandise sales are important to the promoter, as well as to the arena or the stadium in which they play.  Sales of legitimate merchandise generate revenue for the promoter, the arena and to the local municipality.  This is the first time that WWE has experienced a negative decision for a temporary restraining order by a federal judge. Caveat emptor!"

E-mail: Eriq.Gardner@THR.com
Twitter: @eriqgardner