The Washington Commanders are in the process of being sold, but potential buyer Josh Harris may already have his first problem as new owner: the team’s name.
The US Patent and Trademark Office denied the Commanders’ trademark application on Thursday, possibly putting the team’s new moniker in jeopardy after one season.
Josh Gerben, a Washington DC-based trademark attorney, said it’s rare for a professional sports team to file for new trademarks in a world where trademarks are being filed more than ever, but he wasn’t surprised by the USPTO’s action.
“They’re trying to trademark a single word like Commanders for a sports team name. That also comes with all the merch that goes with that, and there are some teething problems cited by the PTO,” Gerben told USA. TODAY Sports.
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Why was the Commander trademark denied?
Trademarks were denied due to the existence of a trademark for “Commanders’ Classic” and previous applications involving the “Commanders” name, according to USPTO documents.
With the “Commanders’ Classic,” the USPTO cited “risk of confusion” because the Commanders’ Classic is used as the name of the annual Army-Air Force college football game, most recently played at Globe Life Field in Texas in 2022.
The second reason is because of “previous requests” involving a longtime Washington fan in the DC area. Martin McCaulay, trademarked “Washington Wolf Commanders” and “Washington Space Commanders” in August 2021, which “prior to the filing date of the applicant”.
Gerben added that it’s worth noting that the USPTO cited McCaulay’s trademarks because they are not trademarks, indicating that the team would receive a refusal of the name if it were registered.
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What does this mean for Commanders?
Without the trademark, Gerben said a problem Washington could have a hard time trying to pull unlicensed merchandise from third-party retailers such as Amazon, Etsy and eBay.
“Commanders may find it more difficult, if not impossible, to do this type of enforcement, which can lead to more unlicensed product being sold, which in turn can mean less revenue for staff and less profit sharing,” Gerben said.
Commanders may not have a problem with unlicensed merchandise because staff have certain rights, Gerben said, “but the registry certainly provides a surcharge for any rights you may have.”
Will Commanders have to change their name? What is the next?
The next step for Washington may be to write a written response to the USPTO, which Gerben said acts as an appeal, to argue that the Commander moniker would not cause any confusion with the Army-Air Force game.
“It’s intended to keep consumers from getting confused about who is offering them a particular product or service. So the question here, at the end of the day, is whether a consumer really thinks these two are in any way related, and I think there are some very good arguments that probably not,” Gerben said.
As for McCaulay, he told The Washington Post in July 2020 that he would be open to speaking with Washington’s estate about the trademark and “has no intention of harming Washington’s NFL team,” according to a letter from a hired lawyer. by McCaulay.
Gerben added that commanders must be confident of getting the trademark registered, which could take months or possibly years. The team and Harris can choose to change the name to something else once new ownership is approved, but that would involve going through the name change process again and if they want a fresh start under a new name. But the USPTO’s decision wouldn’t have much bearing on another name change, Gerben said.
“I certainly understand why the USPTO would cite these records at this point,” he said. “I just think there’s going to be some good arguments Washington’s commanders can make against it.”