October 5, 2018—It’s fall, and you know what that means: football season! For many, this means a return to the couch each weekend to spectate America’s most-watched sport. But the popularity of doing so appears to be in decline. This shift isn’t only affecting the NFL, but also college football as well, as ticket sales continue to plummet. Increasingly among my own family and friends, it seems as if everyone is more interested in playing their fantasy leagues than watching reality unfold before them. Which is why, one would think, that leagues and other football organizations would want to promote discussion about football, rather than hinder it.
But football organizations are cracking down on, rather than encouraging, use of familiar football names and phrases. Some have questioned, for example, the NFL’s bully-like tactics in aggressively protecting the “Superbowl” name. The annual “big game” is so well-known and such a major event that it’s almost impossible not to use its actual name. Yet, the NFL persists, enforcing more than just its famous name, drawing the ire of commentators each year.
Such tactics appear to have inspired a recent filing by the Heisman Trophy Trust against “HeismanWatch.com,” for trademark and copyright infringement. The Heisman Trophy Trust, the complaint says, is the owner of a slew of federal trademark and service mark registrations related to the Heisman Trophy, “one of the most distinguished, prestigious, and recognized awards in all of sports, and perhaps the most famous of all individual awards in football.” The award is given to the most outstanding collegiate football player, usually a quarterback or running back, each year. You might recognize the trophy by its distinctive “stiff-arm” maneuver captured in bronze:
Defendant HeismanWatch.com is a website that offers information, analysis, and podcasts about the Heisman trophy award. It is known for its “one-of-a-kind regression model that processes simulated Heisman votes,” to predict in advance who will win the Heisman each year. It reportedly correctly predicted the most recent winner, Baker Mayfield.
The Heisman Trophy Trust, apparently, does not appreciate HeismanWatch.com’s analysis and attention. It alleges that the website is deliberately attempting to free ride on the fame and notoriety of the Heisman Trophy marks, and it says that consumers are likely to believe there is a connection between the website and the actual trophy organization. Of course, the fact that HeismanWatch.com exists at all belies any such connection; the Trophy selection is secretive, but the website helps fans read the field and guess who will win next.
Time will tell whether the Heisman Trophy Trust can prevail against a news reporting and commentary organization like HeismanWatch.com, but it’s not unprecedented. The Academy Awards sued “OscarWatch.com” over a decade ago, prompting the website to change its name to “Awards Daily.” One cannot help but think that HeismanWatch.com has an incredibly strong nominative use defense, though. Under nominative use doctrine, another person can use the trademark of another if:
- the thing identified by the trademark (here, a trophy) cannot be readily identified any other way;
- the mark is used only as much as is necessary for that identification; and
- the use does not suggest sponsorship or endorsement.
The nominative use defense protects free speech and against the need to use “absurd turns of phrase” to avoid liability.
It’s difficult to imagine a viable substitute to the name “Heisman,” given the trophy’s actual name–and namesake. What alternatives are there to HeismanWatch.com that do not include the surname? One commentator offered an idea:
Of course, this is absurd. And generic alternatives would fail to adequately describe what the website does (e.g., OutstandingCollegiateFootballPlayerWatch.com). One also doesn’t have to look much farther than a simple Google search to find that the media regularly uses “Heisman Watch” as a phrase to discuss anticipation about the next awardee. Even ESPN has a section called “Heisman Watch.” This kind of ubiquity shows the obvious necessity of using the surname. The common use of the phrase also suggests there is a very low likelihood that collegiate football fans are confusing the website–or any other reporting source–with the actual trophy organization. These are hallmarks of fair use.
But setting aside the legal defenses, one has to wonder if organizations such as the Heisman Trophy Trust, NCAA, and NFL ought to relax a little, and encourage the kind of use presented by sites like HeismanWatch.com. These fan centers generate excitement about, and interest in, football. That’s something football desperately needs more of lately.