Thursday, March 4, 2010

Claiming Rights to NBA Player Nickname

My nephew has come up with a new nickname for the NBA player Jonas Jerebko from Sweden ("The Swedish Eagle"). He and his buddy have come to games with a self designed t-shirt that sports an eagle-like bird with a ball in the talons and the jersey number of the player, player's name on the back like a jersey and the player's country flag, as well as cardboard wings and have generated a little publicity for themselves and their concept. Pictures of them have been on a couple of websites, a newspaper, jumbotron at the arena and television coverage of the game. Jerebko also has signed the cardboard wings with his name and an "aka The Swedish Eagle." They are in the process of obtaining a trademark so they can sell t-shirts or other marketing kitsch. No one has the title yet. Can they print the shirts before getting trademark for "The Swedish Eagle" concept? Do they need Jerebko's permission? NBA permission? Can they use the shirts without his name? Do my nephew and friend need a partnership or can they register under both names? The Dear Rich Staff isn't very good at forecasting the future, but one thing we can predict with some certainty is that as soon as the NBA is aware of your nephew's sale of merchandise with the player's name and number, they'll get their lawyers to fire off a letter demanding that he halt the activity. We could be wrong -- and they may prefer to wait and see if it goes away itself. But if we were in your nephew's position, we wouldn't file that trademark application. As nice as the imagery and nickname may be, people are buying the merchandise because of its association with the player -- the use of his name and number cinches the association. The NBA, along with the various teams, controls the rights to exploit the player for merchandising purposes. So, he's stepping on those rights and the NBA usually doesn't like it
But we thought up the nick name ... As we've pointed out before, creating a trademark does not give you exclusive trademark rights. You get the rights if the mark qualifies and if you use it in commerce. Your nephew's application may be granted (or maybe not...)  but he'll have a hard time using it if he combines it with any insignia or text that identifies the NBA or its players. He'll also have an uphill battle trying to stop others from using the name in connection with Jerebko. If your nephew avoids any mention of the player name or number or other team identifier, he may be able to get away with his use and sale of merchandise ... it's a little bit like the recent situation in New Orleans. But the bigger his operation becomes, the more likely he'll be to run into trouble.