These last few years, the Seattle Seahawks have been good. Really good. And the Sounders, too. Here’s to a lot more of that!
With the rise of our teams’ success, I get more of the same type of question. It focuses on whether local craftspersons can incorporate team names, logos, slogans, and/or colors in their handmade clothing, cakes, beer labels, and art. It’s to celebrate team pride; it’s to give the people what they want; and it’s to make a buck.
So what’s ok, and what’s not ok?
The answer turns on trademark law. Names, logos, slogans, and even colors tell consumers where goods and services come from. By incorporating these indicators into a product, an artisan risks misleading purchasers into thinking the goods are made by the team, are licensed by the team, or are approved by the team. Mistaken consumer assumptions hurt the team because it doesn’t profit from the sale, it doesn’t have a say in how its brand is used, and because bad-quality or inappropriate goods could hurt its reputation.
For practical purposes, small-time producers probably can fly under the teams’ radar. But that doesn’t mean it’s legal for them to wrap up their products in a team’s brand without permission.
The more a craftsperson takes from the team’s image — particularly its name and logo — the more likely he or she is to infringe the team’s trademark rights. As long as you’re selling goods or services, you’re subject to trademark laws. So, you shouldn’t be surprised if you hear from your favorite team if you use their brand without permission.
The same is true if you take your favorite athlete’s name. Natural persons often have extra rights against use of their names, likenesses, and signatures for commercial purposes without their permission, thanks to “personality” rights laws.
Artists are often exempt from these concerns. As long as the artwork contains a minimum amount of artistic embellishment, the First Amendment usually trumps trademark and personality rights protections. But regular folks who want to sell crafts on Etsy or in front of the stadium: you probably can’t “borrow” from your favorite team without stepping on its toes.