It’s the most wonderful time of the year!
For many Americans, the month of March is synonymous with kites or St. Patrick’s Day or flowers starting to bloom. For others, it means one thing, and only one thing — basketball. Specifically, the NCAA basketball tournament colloquially known as March Madness.
All over the country, fans are frantically filling out their brackets, trying to make those last perfect picks so they can impress their friends in the office pool. (In fact, over 5 million people entered ESPN’s bracket contest last year.)
As trademark attorneys, we often get asked “Is March Madness trademarked?” (Actually, most people ask if it’s copyrighted, but since we’re talking about a brand, the right form of protection would be trademark.) And the short answer is “Yes.”
The mark MARCH MADNESS is owned by the National Collegiate Athetic Association, or NCAA. In fact, the NCAA owns many such registrations for these words, ranging from such services as “entertainment in the nature of basketball tournaments between college teams” to such varied goods as “cups and mugs” and “carbonated soft drinks.”
But what does this mean?
No, it does not mean that you cannot talk about the tournament using the nickname of the event. You can still say you’re going to watch “March Madness” this weekend. And I can still write this article.
But what it instead means is that commercial uses of the term might be a problem. Why? As one of the world’s most widely watched sporting events, the NCAA makes money off of televised broadcasts of the games, as well as from licensing agreements with companies that wish to sponsor the games in exchange for use of the NCAA’s logos and trademarks in their advertising.
If you sell TVs and were to say your product is “The best way to watch March Madness!” this might imply some association with the event for which sponsors generally pay money. Even if consumers wouldn’t mistake your TVs as being endorsed by the NCAA, this usage might cause the NCAA’s lawyers to send you a cease and desist letter, forcing you to defend the case.
You may ultimately win down the line, but at what cost? The NCAA has some pretty deep pockets, and they are very protective of their brand.
The safest way to avoid such potentially costly issues is to simply avoid use of other parties’ trademarks in your own promotion. Call it “the big game” and show some viewers cheering for a basketball game in the background. But avoid use of the term MARCH MADNESS.
After all, this is the time of year when brackets get busted. No need for your legal budget to end up that way, too!
HEATHER A. SAPP is the Senior Trademark Attorney at LegalForce RAPC. Prior to joining LegalForce, Heather was a Trademark Examining Attorney at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office for more than a decade, and before that she was a Legal Fellow for the House of Representatives Judiciary Committee Subcommittee on Courts, the Internet, and Intellectual Property under then-Ranking Member Congressman Howard Berman. She holds an LLM in Intellectual Property with High Honors from George Washington University School of Law, a JD from the Sandra Day O’Connor College of Law at Arizona State University, and a BA from Duke University. A huge NCAA basketball fan, she spent more than 6 weeks sleeping in tents for the honor of cheering on her Duke Blue Devils.