Brian Hamilton: How much is a name worth to you?
No doubt the National Football League has never been more popular than it is right now.
And the league that serves as the headlining act of our new national pastime has also never been more profitable.
But, apparently, the NFL has mistakenly translated that popularity and profitability into the power to bully its way around the business world in order to “protect” its own rights at the expense of others.
Having a son, Zach, who plays football, formerly at Nevada Union and currently at Arizona Western College, Holley Masch is very familiar with the game of football and the NFL.
But when a letter from the league arrived, essentially ordering her to drop a request to renew the trademark on the logo of her Grass Valley company, “49er Communications,” Masch got a real good look at the big business world of the NFL.
After all, that NFL letterhead wasn’t asking “Are you ready for some football?” It was asking for much more than what would seem to be a reasonable request from a small business owner.
“It has come to our attention that you have applied to register ’49er Communications’ … We are concerned that similarities between your (trade)mark and the 49ers marks may cause the public to mistakenly believe that your services are authorized or sponsored by or are somehow affiliated with the 49ers, NFL, or NLFP.”
The letter also let Masch know that the league filed for an extension in the time to oppose the application made by 49er Communications, but added “We would like to resolve this matter in a mutually agreeable manner.”
From there, the NFL stated it would consent to Masch’s use of “49er Communications”, if she agreed to a laundry list of demands from the league. Among them were that she drop her request for the trademark, that she will cooperate in the league’s efforts to obtain registrations for the “49ers” and that she must always use “49er Communications” with the 49er character logo she sought to trademark.
And they told her what colors she could use in the character’s design. She’s OK to use gray, black, maroon, gold peach, green and various hues of blue – but not red and gold, red and white, red and black or any combination of them.
To Masch the demands seemed “totally absurd,” especially considering that in dropping her request for trademark she would be surrendering her ability to keep others from infringing on her own rights.
Masch established 49er Communications, which sells two-way radios to agencies such as forest services, fire departments and school districts, in 1997 at a desk in her bedroom.
The company has grown to the point of actually building a new office in Nevada City’s Gold Flat Business district that they hope to occupy by next summer.
Considering she previously had her logo and company’s name trademarked – with just a slight difference to the new logo – since 2000, it seems odd that the NFL would have an argument against her renewing it.
In fact, it just seems odd that the NFL – the richest sports league in the world, whose teams have an average net worth of $957 million, according to Forbes magazine – would bother with a small business in western Nevada County.
But it seems even more ridiculous that someone could actually trademark what essentially is a piece of our country’s history.
After all, if you want to argue about it, it would seem western Nevada County – founded by the actual 49ers of the gold rush era and even connected to other former mining communities by, appropriately enough, Highway “49” – has a more viable claim than the National Football League.
But, apparently, you can trademark history.
I guess that means 49er Coin Laundry, 49er Family Fun Park, 49er Hardwood, 49er Liquors, 49er Regional Occupational Program, 49er Self Storage, 49er Windows, 49er Wines, Forty-Niner Auto Repair, Forty Niner Electric, Forty-Niner Fence, Forty-Niner Fire Protection District, Forty-Niner Overhead Door and even the Forty Niner Rotary Duck Race should all be on the look-out for one of those letters from the NFL.
Could the NFL legally force compliance?
Well, we’ll never know whether or not the demands the league laid out for Masch would stand up in court. That’s because, after speaking with her own attorney, she’s decided to acquiesce.
“The bottom line is I can’t fight them even if I wanted to,” she said. “They have a lot more money than I do.”
Brian Hamilton is sports editor at The Union. His column appears Saturdays. Contact him via e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org or by phone at 477-4240.
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