ESPN just published an interesting article that surveys a range of athletes seeking trademark registrations on catch phrases or other aspects of identity. It’s a valuable brand-building step and it has it’s place as a compliment to the Right of Publicity. What the article does not touch on, the elephant in the room, is the question of actual use. Sure, Robert Griffin can apply for “unbelievably believable” but show me the use in commerce. Some athletes obviously will satisfy the use component, but my guess is that the majority of these applications will fall into abandonment, or even fail to to reach registration.
This should lay to rest that old yarn that “it is easier to get forgiveness than permission.” Late last week, Michael Jordan won an $8.9 Million damages award against the grocery store that used his Right of Publicity without permission in print ads that ran in Sports Illustrated.
At trial, jurors heard the familiar infringer’s refrain that Dominick’s achieved no benefit from the ads, and based on expert valuation testimony, the most it should pay for the ad was around $126,000. Of course, this overlooks the fact that Michael Jordan apparently does not do deals for $126,000 and rather, the starting fee for a license to use Jordan’s Right of Publicity is generally in the $10 Million range.
So at $8.9 Million, Dominick’s may have gotten a 10.1 % discount.
I was recently asked to weigh in on whether China might be well-advised to consider recognizing the Right of Publicity. My answer was yes, it should. Perhaps the recent news of a Chinese court denying Michael Jordan’s effort to stop a Chinese sports apparel company from appropriating his name and jumpman logo amply demonstrates why. Here’s a link to one article on the topic, though you’ll need a subscription to access the entire article:
Earlier this week, the Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals in Illinois ruled in favor of Michael Jordan, holding that a grocery store’s “congratulatory ad” is not protected speech. The Jewel Food Stores advertisement in question ran in Sports Illustrated in 2009, congratulating Michael Jordan on his induction to the Pro Basketball Hall of Fame.
While the court’s ruling gets it right, the tone of ESPN’s coverage in the link below indicates that this ruling might not be fully understood. The coverage in the article is thorough enough to allow the reader to reach his or her own conclusions, I think. And for the avoidance of doubt, here is a link to the decision itself: http://media.ca7.uscourts.gov/cgi-bin/rssExec.pl?Submit=Display&Path=Y2014/D02-19/C:12-1992:J:Sykes:aut:T:fnOp:N:1292976:S:0
When the lower court ruled against Jordan, I believed the wrong decision had been reached and I was confident Jordan’s appeal would prevail.
In general, advertising falls in the realm of commercial speech. And there is quite an incentive for businesses to cozy up to a celebrity like Michael Jordan via advertising of this kind. The starting fee for an authorized association with Michael Jordan, as reported in the link below and in the above ruling, is $5 million.
I might feel differently if the grocery store had insisted on remaining completely anonymous: no use of the grocery store’s name, logo, motto, website, address or any other designations. If that was the nature of the advertisement, I might give more credence to the “congratulatory” argument. But those kinds of advertisements don’t come around very often.