With the uproar over the rights to Who Dat, it's instructive to take a look at a brief history of sports trademarks (with the help of the US Patent Office) and learn that the right person rarely ever gets rich.
Lost in all the hubbub about the NFL cracking down on sales of "Who Dat" merchandise, is that no one actually owns the trademark. There are a number of application in the pipeline with the US Patent and Trademark Office, with variations in presence and number of question marks and exclamation points(plus one sad application for "Who Dat 19-0").
The NFL is claiming that it should be a common law trademark, simply meaning that common usage associates it with the Saints, and therefore the league. Which, in 2010, is probably a valid argument in court. Though the phrase has a long history dating back to minstrel shows (a good summary can be found here), when someone now says "Who Dat," you think Saints.
But pursuing it in court is just bad PR, which is why the NFL backed off going after merchants. Now you can sell Who Dat shirts to your heart's content, as long as there's no other NFL trademarks as part of the design.
Robert Morris University has long been referred to by students, players and administrators as "Bobby Mo." But it was a group of alumni that actually trademarked the phrase in 2005, meaning they have the exclusive rights to slap the phrase on clothing that always sells well among the student section.
The university has attempted to buy the trademark, but the alumni claim they were lowball offers. A plan to rename the mascot, from RoMo to Bobby Mo, fell through. The lesson here, as always, is to trademark everything.
But before you think of the alumni group as Robin Hoods, sticking it to the establishment, keep in mind they're the ones who also trademarked those godawful "Stop Snitchin" t-shirts.
This is one of those things that you just assume has been around forever. But it was only in 1988, with the Lakers starting the quest for their third straight title, that it gained currency. And Lakers coach Pat Riley, always the businessman, trademarked the phrase "Three-Peat."
Yes, that's right, Pat Riley owns the rights. And while karma didn't let the Lakers finish their trifecta in '89, the Bulls did pull it off four years later. Then the Yankees in 98-2000. Then the Lakers, this time without Riley. But every time those teams printed up their Three-Peat t-shirts, they had to put some cash in Pat Riley's coffers.
When you think March Madness, you think the NCAA Tournament. But it hasn't always been so. Anecdotally, Brent Musburger was the first to use it, during the 1982 Tourney. It caught on, but in the mid-90's, a trademark battle developed. The NCAA learned it had been in use to describe another basketball tourney as early as 1939 - coincidentally, the first year of the NCAA Tournament.
The Illinois High School Association had used March Madness to refer to its annual prep playoffs, but had never trademarked it. With the growing ubiquity of its use in regards to the NCAA bracket, the IHSA decided to rectify that, and registered it in 1995. The NCAA promptly took them to court, but the two settled, forming the March Madness Athletic Association, a new entity that owned all the rights, and licensed them in perpetuity to both the NCAA and the IHSA.
In 2002, LeBron James filed to trademark his own name. A year later, he abandoned the attempt. Why? He found someone willing to pay him a lot more for it.
Nike now owns the trademark to the word "LeBron," giving them exclusive use for the phrase on apparel, basketball, and bags. Additional attempts to trademark the name for use on watches and eyewear were denied. We joke about athletes selling their soul to Nike, but the fact of the matter is that LeBron James no longer owns his own name.
Super Bowl. Say it with me. "Super Bowl." No problem, right? Well, if you want to put "Super Bowl" on a flyer inviting people to your party, tough shit. The NFL has owned that trademark since 1969 and the first official Super Bowl, Super Bowl III. (People forget this now, but the first two only get called Super Bowls retroactively.)
That's why you'll see bars advertising their Super Sunday (also trademarked) parties with copy inviting fans to watch "The Big Game." Which, incidentally, the NFL tried to trademark three years ago, but failed because Stanford and Cal's Big Game came first.
Which isn't to say "Super Bowl" can't be used at all. Kraft has trademarked their own Super Bowl, a now defunct Mac N' Cheese mix that first came out in the late '70s. A Brooklyn metal shop owns the rights to the Super Bowl, a football board game that was trademarked two years before the NFL got around to it. And, until 2002, a New York corporation held "The Superbowl of Indexing," an annual conference on distributing educational course materials.
Contrary to popular belief, neither Sports Illustrated, ESPN, nor Tommy Craggs owns the trademark to Rick Reilly.