Friday, May 17, 2013

Collegiate conference realignment and trademark squatters.

In the past few years, collegiate conference realignment has been driven by television and marketing revenue from football. Conferences have been trying to expand their "footprint" in order to leverage the largest number of cable subscribers or network television viewers. When a conference has its own cable network, like the Big Ten or Southeastern Conference (SEC), an expanded footprint is more important than when a conference has a TV contract with network channels.

In the summer of 2010, college football was at a crossroads. The Universities of Nebraska and Colorado left the Big 12 Conference for the Big Ten and Pac-12 Conferences, respectively. Although some schools were secure with their conference affiliation, many "big name" schools were left wondering where they would end up. Similar events occurred in the fall of 2011, when the University of Missouri and Texas A&M University left the Big 12 for the SEC. Other big name schools changed conference affiliation as well, and the ripple effects are still being felt today. There is no indication that conference realignment is over, despite several conferences' members agreeing to grant their media rights to the conference for a specified period of time.

Of the schools and conferences that were unsure where they would end up as a result of realignment, some filed intent-to-use applications over the past decade or so, in order to reserve alternate or new conference names in the event of a conference's dissolution or addition of members. For instance, from 1997 to 2009, the Big 12 filed intent-to-use applications three separate times for the "Big 14," in anticipation of the conference membership expanding to 14 schools. All three were abandoned, the last of which on September 24, 2012.

The most recent wave of conference realignment resulted in seven Catholic schools leaving the current Big East Conference to form a new Big East. The remaining members formed the American Athletic Conference, and added a few other schools. The new conference filed intent-to-use applications for a variety of names that were under consideration before it made its final selection. This saved time when the conference made its selection and used the name in commerce, by making full trademark registration easier. For the names the conference did not use (e.g., All America Conference, America 12 Conference), it will simply abandon the applications.

When a few conferences almost "imploded" in 2010, which would have left numerous schools without a conference affiliation, a number of individuals tried to anticipate new conference names by filing intent-to-use applications on nonexistent conferences with the hope of later profiting from them, much like cybersquatters do. For instance, one individual filed an application in June 2010 for the "Super16 Conference." This guy was apparently unaware that he would need to use the name in commerce to ultimately secure a federal registration. Eventually, his intent-to-use application would lapse, because he ostensibly had no connection to the hypothetical conference that would want to use the name.

Plus, the hypothetical conference could also have just selected a different name. Or, it could have have used the "Super16" name and simply proven that the previous filer had no bona fide intent to use the mark in commerce.

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