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A Brief History of March Madness: the Trademark

It’s that time of year. Spring’s around the corner, basketball’s on the tube, and many hours of work are about to be wasted. With me off to Vegas in two days, I’m in the throes of March Madness. Big time.

So how did “March Madness” come about — as a trademark? The Fifth Circuit provided a pretty comprehensive answer a few years ago in March Madness Athletic Association, LLC v. Netfire Inc., 120 Fed. Appx. 540, 2005 WL 147264 (5th Cir.). Here’s the skinny:

The Illinois High School Association “has organized an annual boys’ high school basketball tournament in Illinois since 1908. Since the 1940s, IHSA has used the term ‘March Madness’ to refer to the IHSA Tournament.

“IHSA first attempted to register March Madness in 1990. At that time it discovered an entity called Intersport had registered the phrase on December 12, 1989. Intersport’s registration was for ‘entertainment services, namely, presentation of athletic and entertainment personalities in a panel forum’ regarding the NCAA Tournament. IHSA and Intersport eventually came to an agreement, on July 24, 1995, whereby Intersport assigned its registered service mark to IHSA in return for a perpetual license to use March Madness for its sports programming and a share of royalty payments received by IHSA.

“IHSA claimed exclusive rights to March Madness, and it licensed the phrase for any use, even uses that did not relate to the IHSA Tournament. Its commercial licensees included Wilson Sporting Goods, Pepsi and the Chicago Tribune. IHSA also licensed March Madness to other state high school associations for the nominal fee of $10.

“The NCAA’s first use of the phrase ‘March Madness’ is generally traced to 1982, when CBS broadcaster Brent Musberger used the phrase to describe the NCAA Tournament. The NCAA began licensing March Madness in 1988 as one of a set of marks relating to NCAA championships.

“In the early 1990s, both IHSA and NCAA were claiming exclusive rights to all commercial uses of March Madness. In 1996, IHSA sued an NCAA licensee, GTE Vantage, that created a basketball video game that made use of the phrase March Madness. In December 1996, the Seventh Circuit, in Illinois High School Ass’n v. GTE Vantage, rejected IHSA’s claim to rights over March Madness in the context of the NCAA Tournament. 99 F.3d 244, 247-48 (7th Cir. 1996).

“Following the Seventh Circuit decision in GTE Vantage, IHSA and NCAA decided to work together to protect their rights in March Madness. After several years of negotiation, IHSA and NCAA formed [the March Madness Athletic Association LLC] on February 29, 2000…. IHSA and NCAA each transferred all rights it held in March Madness to MMAA, and in return each received a license to use the term in relation to its basketball tournament. As of August 2003, MMAA held seven registered service marks or trademarks for March Madness, an additional five for America’s Original March Madness and another for March Madness Experience.”

Now you know.

Go Gophers! Go Huskies (of Washington, not of Connecticut)!

Related, from today’s LA Times: “March Madness attracts the eagle eyes of trademark lawyers

Posted on March 18, 2009 by Registered CommenterMichael Atkins | Comments1 Comment | References1 Reference

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  • Response
    I have noticed that my news updates tend to be patent-focused, so today they focus on trademarks and copyrights:IP Law & Business (subscription required to access the article) has an interesting article in the February/March 2009 issue identifying Justice Ginsburg as the Supreme Court's "champion of copyright holders" because of recent ...

Reader Comments (1)

Thanks for story. It's good to get the word out about the strength of the March Madness mark.

Doug Masters
March 19, 2009 | Unregistered CommenterDoug Masters

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