February 14 marks an unofficial end to winter because, as baseball fans know, this is the day when pitchers and catchers report for spring training. In honor of this happy occasion, and being both baseball fans and trademark geeks, we wanted to explore the biggest trademark story currently in the baseball world.
On January 29, Major League Baseball announced that the Cleveland Indians would no longer use the longtime Native American caricature logo known as “Chief Wahoo” on game hats or jerseys. Although the Indians made the “Block C” their primary logo in 2014, Chief Wahoo still regularly appeared on the field on some caps and uniform sleeves. Starting in 2019, neither fans nor foes will see Chief Wahoo anywhere on the baseball diamond.
The Chief Wahoo logo generates strong emotional responses on both sides of the love/hate spectrum. Some insist that the logo was originally intended as an affectionate tribute to Native Americans and should be retained as a part of Cleveland tradition. Many others find the depiction to be ethnically insensitive and demeaning.
There is much debate as to why, in 1915, the Cleveland baseball team changed its name from the “Naps” to the “Indians.” Team lore teaches that the name was changed as a tribute to Louis Sockalexis, a Penobscot who played for what in the late 1890s was known as the Cleveland Spiders and who is believed to be the first Native American to play major league baseball. He died young from tuberculosis in 1913, and when the team held a contest in 1915 to select a new name, he was supposedly the inspiration for the winning entry, Indians.
From 1915 to 1927, the Indians did not have a caricature for a logo, and instead they used the letter C in various stylized formats. In 1928, the Indians introduced their first Native American caricature, which has taken on different forms ever since.
The virtual museum of the history of sports logos and uniforms available at Chris Creamer’s SportsLogos.Net provides the following pictorial history of the Indians’ primary logos from 1915 to the present. The depiction that people today would recognize as Chief Wahoo first appeared in 1946, at the dawn of a brief period when the Indians were a power in the American League, featuring legends Bob Feller, Bob Lemon, Lou Boudreau and Larry Doby (who broke the color line in the American League). Indeed, the Indians have not won a World Series since 1948, which may lead some to ask whether there is a curse of Chief Wahoo (this writer does not believe so, as he is very optimistic about his team in 2018).
Meanwhile, the Indians did not introduce a secondary logo until 1947. The pictorial history of the secondary logos is detailed below.
Cap logos have varied over the years, sometimes featuring Chief Wahoo but often just using the letter C in various stylized formats.
As many people are aware, professional sports teams – and Major League Baseball in particular – are known for being aggressive in enforcing their trademark rights in court and at the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board. Being familiar with these enforcement tendencies, one would expect professional sports teams to have a long history of actively and timely protecting their rights with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). In the case of the Indians, this is not so. Indeed, according to the USPTO’s records, the Indians did not start filing to protect their Native American caricature logos until the 1970s. Below we have created a timeline of the Indians’ notable Chief Wahoo filings with the USPTO.
App. Date / No.
January 10, 1974
Souvenirs found in Classes 6 (keychains), 18 (tote bags), 21 (cups), and 25 (sweatshirts, sweaters, and garters)
January 23, 1974
Souvenirs found in Classes 14 (jewelry), 16 (decals), 20 (cushions and trash cans), 24 (towels and pennants), 25 (ponchos and belts), 26 (patches and belt buckles), 28 (balls and gloves), 30 (gum), and 34 (cigarette lighters)
June 1, 1981
Baseball exhibitions in Class 41
Jerseys and caps in Class 25
Various other souvenirs found in Classes 6, 9, 14, 16, 18, 20, 21, 22, 24, 25, 26, 28, and 34
November 18, 1988
Souvenirs found in Class 21 (cups)
November 18, 1988
Caps found in Class 25
December 13, 1990
Jerseys and jackets found in Class 25
October 13, 1992
Baseball exhibits in Class 41
Souvenirs found in Class 16 (printed materials)
While other “gap-filler” filings have been made since 1990 to expand the scope of goods (souvenirs) covered, these filings comprise the core of the Cleveland Indians’ Chief Wahoo federal trademark portfolio.
A key point on MLB’s January 29 announcement is that starting in 2019, the Chief Wahoo logo will not be used on the field. This means that the Indians will still be able to sell Chief Wahoo-branded souvenirs and apparel, but only at the ballpark and in stores in Northeastern Ohio. This means that the team will still be able to profit from the logo; maintaining use also means they will be able to maintain their trademark filings with the USPTO and enforce them against third parties selling unauthorized merchandise.
With this announcement, it will also be interesting to see whether sales of Chief Wahoo-branded merchandise increase prior to the phaseout – which I expect that they will. It will also be interesting to see whether the Indians introduce more merchandise with other legacy Chief Wahoo logos to take advantage of the desire for such merchandise by those fans who look on the logo with nostalgia. It is possible that the team will look on this announcement as a marketing opportunity and that it will lead to new filings by the Indians to capture their past versions of Chief Wahoo – though such a move would also pose public relations challenges. With the Tam and Brunetticases resolved in favor of permitting registration of marks some find offensive, scandalous, and/or immoral, there is nothing from a legal standpoint to stop the Indians from further developing their portfolio and profiting from Chief Wahoo in all its forms.
While some people have criticized the Indians for their intent in continuing to sell Chief Wahoo-branded merchandise – which will allow them to maintain their trademark registrations – it is important to realize that the Indians are in the best position to prevent others from commercializing the Chief Wahoo logo. Right now, if a third party were to try to use Chief Wahoo on merchandise, the Indians are in a strong position to prevent such use due to their trademark rights. Should their rights completely lapse, others would surely step in with products of their own.
Finally, it is important to note that the Indians have expressed no interest in moving away from the “Indians” name. As most public pressure/outrage was directed toward the use of the Chief Wahoo logo, it seems very unlikely that the Indians will go any further.
The opinions expressed are those of the authors on the date noted above and do not necessarily reflect the views of Fish & Richardson P.C., any other of its lawyers, its clients, or any of its or their respective affiliates. This post is for general information purposes only and is not intended to be and should not be taken as legal advice. No attorney-client relationship is formed.
John McCormick is an associate in the Boston office of Fish & Richardson P.C. Mr. McCormick works closely with businesses on brand adoption, protection, and enforcement in the U.S. and internationally. Working with a wide range of clients – from startups to global multi-billion dollar enterprises – Mr. McCormick has experience...