The biggest football game of the year is an exciting time and there are tons of promotions and contests that use the term “Super Bowl” and other trademarked names freely. An example would be a radio station having a contest called “Super Bowl 50 Party” or advertising a merchant with a “Super Bowl Sunday Sale” which violates trademarks. It’s important to avoid any appearance or suggestion that the station is affiliated in any way with The Big Game or the National Football League (NFL) unless you are officially licensed by the NFL to do so.
Terms to watch out for that are registered trademarks besides “Super Bowl”, include: “National Football League,” “National Football Conference,” “American Football Conference,” “Lombardi Trophy,” “Super Sunday” and the names of all 32 NFL teams. The NFL even tried to prevent the use of “The Big Game” by filing a USPTO trademark application, but the NFL was forced to abandon its trick-play when numerous colleges and business opposed the application.
If you think you can get away with it and the NFL will turn a blind eye, think again. The trademarks are heavily guarded by the NFL and its teams and they have a track record of prosecuting individuals and businesses that use their trademarks without prior permission. In order to have limited rights to use these trademarks, you must be a corporate sponsor and pay a hefty price to the league. Under no uncertain terms do they allow non-sponsors to use these terms without a price. If you don’t pay them up front with money, you’ll most likely pay with a lawsuit. NFL trademark attorneys aggressively send cease and desist letters.
Let’s be more specific with the details of a true trademark violation. If a station that is allowed to broadcast The Big Game announces publicly to “listen to the Super Bowl live on February 7th” on their station, that would not be seen a violation worthy of prosecution. They can also discuss the Super Bowl teams by name as a news event, including their pick for the winner, the stats of the game…the basic types of game-play.
Ticket giveaways aren’t the best idea. Even though the tickets were purchased officially and legally, giving away those tickets without NFL permission is violating the fine print on the back of the ticket. Unless your advertiser is an NFL sponsor and the tickets were received as part of the sponsorship, the giveaway is against the rules.
This isn’t limited to just broadcasting. Everyone has to be careful. Merchants selling souvenir t-shirts and gear cannot use trademarks. Even grocery stores, restaurants and retail stores avoid using “Super Bowl” on in-store signs and social media. Don’t forget about the trademarked logos and uniform designs. Once upon a time, churches would have parties and show the big game on a TV screen – not anymore, unless they want one of those dreaded letters from an NFL trademark attorney, or worse.
Some businesses have used clever plays on words such as, “Come get your TV before the Super Bowl” because it is describing an event. Some attorneys have fought for those businesses and won, but who would want to go through the hassle?
If you want to be smart this season, it’s a great idea to do a search on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office website to find all of the trademarks to avoid. Play it safe and avoid a penalty because legal issues plague every business. It’s not worth the risk.