Giannis Antetokounmpo is a two-time MVP, five-time All-Star and an NBA champ. He’s also a successful plaintiff in a federal IP lawsuit over the unauthorized use of his trademark, name, image and likeness rights in jerseys, phone cases, clocks, pillows, greeting cards, shower curtains and even drug paraphernalia.
Last Wednesday, a federal magistrate in New York ordered Sherrie Richardson-Miller and Jordan Reyes to pay the Milwaukee Bucks superstar his attorneys’ fees and other costs. Antetokounmpo, 27, sued them and others for using his trademark and NIL in products sold on etsy.com, redbubble.com and other online platforms.
In July, Antetokounmpo was awarded an injunction to stop the sale of these products, which featured references to “Greek Freak” and “Greek Fr34K.” The injunction came as part of a default judgment, meaning the defendants hadn’t contested the lawsuit.
In his ruling, Judge James Cott explained why Antetokounmpo’s IP rights were violated and why the defendants should pay $11,304.40.
First, Antetokounmpo established a viable false endorsement claim. Antetokounmpo owns the federally registered “Greek Freak” trademark and has licensed his NIL for endorsed products. Some of those products, Judge Cott observed, resemble unauthorized ones sold by the defendants. Consumers could be confused as to which ones Antetokounmpo actually endorses. In citing case law involving Marilyn Monroe’s estate, the judge stressed that celebrities have the legal right to combat the misappropriation of their drawing power.
Second, Antetokounmpo’s status as one of the most renowned athletes in the world is legally significant. With celebrity false endorsement claims, NIL—including famous nicknames, like “Greek Freak”—can become highly distinctive and “widely recognized among consumers as source-identifiers” for endorsed products.
Third, although Antetokounmpo can’t offer consumer confusion data because the defendants ignored the litigation—they didn’t turn over sales figures or answer questions under oath—Antetokounmpo only needs to establish a likelihood of consumer confusion. He met this bar, Judge Cott stressed, since “it is likely consumers would believe defendants’ products, advertised using Antetokounmpo’s name and likeness, may be associated with or endorsed by Antetokounmpo.” The fact that counterfeits were “of his own licensed products” further suggested consumer confusion.
Judges only order defendants to pay the plaintiffs’ attorneys fees in exceptional cases. Judge Cott found that Antetokounmpo’s is such a case. Despite receiving cease-and-desist letters, the defendants “allegedly continued to sell the infringing goods.” Also, because Antetokounmpo couldn’t prove specific damages with non-responsive defendants, attorneys’ fees are the “only vehicle” to both compensate him and deter “others from engaging in infringing conduct.”
Judge Cott’s ruling is technically a recommendation to the district court judge, Jesse Furman. The defendants have 14 days to respond. Particularly given the lack of responsiveness by the defendants, Judge Furman is poised to award attorneys’ fees.
A little over $11,000 might seem inconsequential for Antetokounmpo. He’s already earned more than $108 million in NBA contracts. Last year Antetokounmpo signed a five-year, $228 million “super max” extension. He’s earned millions more in endorsement deals and now owns part of the Milwaukee Brewers. Antetokounmpo might not be able to collect the $11,000, and it might not be worth the expense pursuing it. As Fred Goldman famously said after O.J. Simpson was ordered to pay $33 million for the wrongful deaths of Ronald Goldman and Nicole Brown Simpson, “What people don’t realize about a civil trial is that a judgment is a piece of paper, and that is what you get. Then, it becomes the creditor’s responsibility to figure out a way to collect on it.”
Yet Antetokounmpo still has reason to litigate. He is sending a message to those tempted to misappropriate his IP: He will pursue them. There are also ramifications for defendants who don’t pay civil judgments. Failure to pay can surface in background checks, damage credit scores, reduce chances for getting a loan, and lead to garnishment of wages and contempt of court orders. Such consequences may deter others from attempting the same misdeed.