Photo by Daniel O'Neil

Hello, sports fans!  Are you ready for “the big game” this weekend?  Notice how I didn’t say “Super Bowl” because I don’t want to NFL to sue me for improper use of their brand.

Roy Fox knows a thing or two about the NFL’s defense of their brand, as the League pressured him to abondon his trademark application for “Harbowl,” a play on the name of the Harbaugh brothers, coaches of this year’s Super Bowl contenders.  John coaches the San Francisco 49ers.  Jim coaches the Baltimore Ravens.  While there are endless possibilites for puns based on this battle of the bros, Mr. Fox derserves credit for the foresight to trademark “Harbowl” and “Harbaughbowl.”  The USPTO processed his trademark application last February, well before there was any certaintly that the Harbaugh brothers would face off in any Super Bowl.  As The Examiner recently exposed, the NFL wasn’t going to let Mr. Fox get away with his idea.

The NFL apparently bullied Mr. Fox to drop his trademark application out of concern that unwitting consumers would purchses “Harbowl” gear and mistakenly assume that it was official NFL merchandise.  Depite the virtues of distinguishing official merchandise from knockoffs, it is not clear here that Mr. Fox’s slogan was threatening NFL branding.  There is no indication that he was going to sell “Harbowl” merchandise under the guise of official NFL merchandise.  Instead, it seems like the NFL was just jealous that someone beat them to the punch.

The bullying began when NLF objected to the trademark application and began writing to Mr. Fox “suggesting” that he abandon his quest.  Initially resistant, Mr. Fox told the NFL he would abandon the trademark application in exchange for Colts tickets, a simple request considering potentional lost sales once the Harbowl came to frutition.  The NFL summarily denied this request and threaten to bring suit, at which point Mr. Fox decided not to continute to seek a trademark for fear of incurring costly litigation expenses.

What’s the moral of this story?  From a human interest standpoint, it seems to be “Shame on  you, NFL.  Pick on someone your own size.”  From an intellectual property standoint, it seem to be “Shame on you, NFL.  You should have seen this coming and trademarked ‘Harbowl’ yourself.”

Erin Frankrone

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3 Responses to Super Bowl Bully

  1. Graham Wellington says:

    Reading this story reminds me of a quote from Cosmo Kramer from the Seinfeld episode when Kramer hides the key to his strongbox in his neighbor’s pet bird’s food dish. The bird, named Fredo, subsequently eats the key and dies. When Jerry finds out Kramer’s actions led to the bird’s death, Kramer defends himself by proclaiming “Fredo was weak and stupid!”

    Roy was weak and stupid!

    Also, food for thought, had the NFL independently trademarked “Harbowl” before Roy Fox did (February 2012), and then this season played out as it did with both Harbaugh brothers coaching their teams to the Super Bowl, the NFL would have been subject to all kinds of accusations of a conspiracy to get the Harbaugh boys to the Super Bowl so the NFL could make bank off their newly acquired patent!

  2. Zachary Loney says:

    Trademark and copyright enforcement by sports leagues has reached ridiculous levels in recent years. As a barometer of how people feel about it here’s an article written by Drew Brees back in 2010 on why the NFL shouldn’t have exclusive licenses.

    The NFL subsists solely on the strength of its fan culture. It seems shortsighted to assume that an expression of fandom, while maybe removing a few merchandise sales, would not increase the entire fan experience as a whole.

  3. Jacob Schumer says:

    On its face, this definitely seems ridiculous. The NFL obviously doesn’t own the word “bowl,” as there are dozens and dozens of other bowls. One would think that they don’t own the name “Harbaugh,” either. That said, I think it’s pretty reasonable to oppose this trademark; anyone who hears the word “Harbowl” or anything similar will immediately think of this Superbowl.

    That said, there are plenty of other reasons to consider NFL to be an IP bully. In one case, the NFL issued a takedown notice on a YouTube video of its Copyright statement that it airs during games. A professor had uploaded the video to discuss how it is an incorrect statement of the NFL’s rights, as it ignores fair use. The NFL unironically sent a takedown notice for the video under the DMCA, and YouTube took it down. YouTube put it back up once the professor sent a counter-notice of fair use, as allowed under the DMCA. Instead of then going through the channel of disputing fair use, the NFL violated the DMCA by sending another takedown notice. You can read about it here:

    http://arstechnica.com/business/2007/03/nfl-fumbles-dmca-takedown-battle-could-face-sanctions/