The Cleveland Indians’ decision to change their logo and name raises the question of how the team can secure a new identity, and two popular options are already spoken for.
Two names that initially surfaced as speculated possibilities might not be available. Both “Cleveland Baseball Team” and “Cleveland Spiders” are already the subject of trademark applications filed in July.
In late July—a couple of weeks after the Washington Football Team announced it would be dropping “Redskins” as its NFL team name—a person in Georgia named Andrew Steen applied for “Cleveland Baseball Team,” with the intended use for entertainment, sports and other services.
That name may no longer be needed as a temporary placeholder for the MLB team from Cleveland. “As we take the necessary time to determine a new name and brand, the team will continue using the Indians name and branding,” owner and CEO Paul Dolan wrote in an open letter to fans Monday. The New York Times first reported the news of the name change on Sunday evening.
Creating a new brand and marks that retain ties to the city may be easier said than done. “Spiders” has long been a popular alternative in Cleveland, but a person named Arlen Love in Washington applied for “Cleveland Spiders,” with the intended use for sports jerseys. The Cleveland Spiders were a National League major league team from 1889 to 1899, when they finished a record-worst 20-134 and were contracted.
The filing of an application does not mean the applicant has obtained or will obtain the desired mark. Registration often takes longer than a year and involves a multi-step process led by a USPTO attorney. The attorney can raise a variety of objections, including whether registration would lead to confusion. Outside parties—objectors—can also assert claims against registration that can be resolved by the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB), an administrative court within the USPTO. Also, while some countries use a “first-to-file” approach to trademark registration, the U.S. generally uses a “first-to-use.” It’s unclear at this point how these factors will impact the registrations.
The Indians, of course, can negotiate to use another’s trademark through a license or similar arrangement. If the team wants to use a registered mark, it could try to gain that right by paying the holder.
The Indians’ lack of an immediate replacement drew the scrutiny of legal experts.
Alexandra Roberts, a trademark law expert at UNH Franklin Pierce School of Law and author of Athlete Trademarks: Names, Nicknames, & Catchphrases, tweets surprise at the lack of plan:
no new name at the ready for these guys either? here come the trademark squatters! ⚾️⚾️⚾️ https://t.co/pNxRZ8WkcT
— alexandra j. roberts (@lexlanham) December 14, 2020
(This story has been updated in light of Cleveland owner and CEO Paul Dolan’s statement to fans on the name change.)