Mark Madness: How the NCAA Refs Their Trademark Game
Excited to get your friends together during the third month of the year and watch that tournament of college basketball games? So are we. But make sure you don’t call it “MARCH MADNESS” or else the NCAA might sue you. Well not quite.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) owns several federal U.S. trademark registrations for the mark MARCH MADNESS in connection with various products and services related to the famous college basketball tournament. In other words, the NCAA has the exclusive right to use this trademark in connection with these products and services. Any other unauthorized person or entity using this term in commerce may very well expect to receive a cease and desist letter from the NCAA.
The NCAA is known to vigilantly police any unauthorized use of their trademarks, which also include the ELITE EIGHT and FINAL FOUR marks. On its website, it has even outlined a comprehensive “Trademark Protection Program,” stating that its brands are “carefully controlled and aggressively protected.” The NCAA and its official licensed partners have spent millions of dollars on promoting their events and related trademarks, and aim to prevent others from unfairly capitalizing on their efforts.
For example, in 2003, in March Madness Athletic Ass’n, LLC v. Netfire, Inc., 310 F. Supp. 786 (N.D. Tex. 2003), defendants acquired the domain name “marchmadness.com” in order to develop a website in connection with the NCAA’s basketball tournament. The MMAA (the holding company used by the NCAA and the Illinois High School Association) sued for infringement. Defendants argued that the MARCH MADNESS mark was generic and that their use was protected under a fair use defense. The court disagreed, ruling in favor of the MMAA. The court found that the mark was descriptive with strong secondary meaning, and rejected the fair use defense because the mark was used as a trademark and not simply used as an ordinary English word.
To clarify, this does not mean that you can’t call up your friends and invite them over to watch “March Madness” games, or even casually discuss “March Madness” in a conversation. But it does mean that any unauthorized commercial or promotional activity involving the mark will likely result in the NCAA calling a technical foul on your operation.