Monday, February 8, 2010

Indianapolis Business Journal's Editorial on the Superbowl and Copyright

While reading Indy Tax Dollars, I noticed this entry cited an unlinked editorial from the pages of the Indianapolis Business Journal. After some searching, I found the editorial:

So ... how ’bout that Super Bowl?

This year’s gridiron battle between the Indianapolis Colts and New Orleans Saints in Super Bowl XLIV has been the talk of the town, to be sure. Sort of.

Despite all the buzz about the Colts’ second trip in four years to the National Football League championship, it’s nearly impossible to find a public reference to the Super Bowl. That’s not because of a lack of civic pride—sports-crazy Indianapolis is in its element when it has a hometown contender.

No, it seems the NFL doesn’t want anyone to call the Super Bowl the Super Bowl.


Yep, the league has trademarked “Super Bowl”—along with “Super Sunday” and “NFL”—and is notorious for the lengths it will go to in order to protect its brands. Its stance: Commercial uses of the protected words by anyone other than paid sponsors lowers the value of the (multimillion-dollar) sponsorships. Businesses that dare to call the Super Bowl by name could find themselves on the receiving end of a legal smackdown. Same goes for any reference to NFL teams, which also are trademarked.

Hence, the ubiquitous references to “The Big Game” by bars, restaurants, retailers and others who stand to benefit from consumers’ interest in the Super Bowl. In fact, use of “The Big Game” as a euphemism for the Super Bowl is so widespread that the NFL filed paperwork in 2006 to trademark that phrase, too. In a rare show of restraint, it later dropped the request.

OK, let’s get this straight: The NFL has spent 44 years building a brand that has instant name recognition. Say “Super Bowl” (if you dare) and people know what you’re talking about. But instead of reveling in its ability to make the Super Bowl so much more than a football game, the league goes to extreme lengths to squeeze every penny out of it. Talk about super greedy.

For whatever reason, the Super Bowl is an event most fans don’t want to watch alone. Only two cities send teams to compete each year, but Super Bowl parties are common nationwide. Whip up a pot of chili, buy a case of beer, turn on your new widescreen TV, and you have an instant celebration. Want to avoid the mess? Head to the neighborhood hangout and cheer on your favorite team. That’s part of what makes the Super Bowl the Super Bowl instead of just another football game.

So why shouldn’t that neighborhood hangout be able to promote its Super Bowl party? Why can’t the grocery store urge customers to stop in for Super Bowl refreshments? Does letting the electronics store advertise its pre-Super Bowl sale really hurt the sponsors whose messages will be delivered on that new TV?

We understand why the NFL cracks down on unlicensed merchandise, as reporter Scott Olson wrote about in a Friday story on, even if we think the league sometimes takes enforcement too far. But forbidding businesses from simply using the name is ridiculous. It’s the Super Bowl, and everyone should be able to call it that.

Despite how much I agree with the editorial, it misses the forest for the trees. It is only because of the lax trademark laws (or possibly, how lax the enforcement is) that have led to this problem. While the National Football League gets some criticism around Super Bowl time every year, this is not just one organization abusing trademarks.

McDonald's has threatened or bought forth legal action numerous times for others that have dared to use the letters "Mc" in their business' name. A spokesman for McDonald's said:

"We have made a significant investment over the years to build up the reputation for restaurant services and food itmes associated with this trademark and also of the golden arches logo, which is also registered.

"If someone, either deliberately, or unintentionally, uses our trademarks in their own food or retaurant-related business they are effectively using something that does not belong to them."

McDonald's also forced Elizabeth McCaughey, owner of the business formally known as McCoffee, to change the name of her business even though it had been in operation for 17 years, as seen here.

So kudos to the Indianapolis Business Journal for bringing up the issue, but it is a far larger problem than just the NFL's abuse of it.

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