“12th Man” Infringement: Might the Denver Broncos Have to Pay?

Today is a big day in Colorado. Tim Tebow and the Denver Broncos are in the NFL playoffs, and they’re scheduled to play against the New England Patriots today. So what do the Denver Broncos have in common with intellectual property law? Plenty. Colorado patent attorney Mark Trenner of Trenner Law Firm, LLC in Denver explains.

According to the Denver Post article “Broncos could be in trouble with Texas A&M after fan flag” the university may take legal action against the Denver Broncos for using the school’s trademarked “12th man” phrase before last Sunday’s game against the Pittsburgh Steelers. Apparently a man parachuted into the stadium in Denver holding a “12th man” flag, and Texas A&M claims to own a trademark for this.

I checked the US Trademark Office records, and sure enough, Texas A&M does have a trademark registration (trademark registration number 1,612,053 registered in 1990) for “12th MAN” for “novelty buttons, towels, hats, t-shirts, polo-type shirts, golf shirts, sweaters, shorts, and athletic uniforms, in addition to college scholarship services.”

But what do any of these items have to do with the flag at the Broncos game?

Mark explains that with trademark law, potential infringers need to be aware that it’s not just identical uses, but what might be considered to be “confusingly similar.” Here, another sports team used the identical words “12th man” on a flag at a sporting event (I might add that it was a widely publicized and watched NFL television event). A flag isn’t the same as hats, t-shirts, etc., but given the circumstances (a football game with football fans who likely watch both college football and NFL games), arguably there may be an element of confusion. That is, those attending the NFL game may have been “confused” into thinking that Texas A&M was somehow associated with or involved in the parachute stunt – when apparently the university was not involved.

Do they have a case? Possibly. At least the Denver Post article quotes Jason Cook, vice president of marketing and communications at Texas A&M as tweeting that they “will defend our trademark.” And that wouldn’t be the first time either. According to the article, Texas A&M threatened legal action against the Seattle Seahawks for a similar stunt last season. The article says that they settled after “the NFL team was forced to pay the school a fee.”

Denver patent attorney Mark Trenner would like to acknowledge that the following trademarks: NFL, New England Patriots, Denver Broncos, Denver Post, and Texas A&M, are all trademarks of their respective trademark owners.

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