Texas A&M Wins Trademark Suit Against Soap Company In Washington State By Playing Six Degrees Of Trademark Licensing

Readers here will likely be aware of the tortured history of Texas A&M’s “12th Man” trademark. If you’re not, the term describes the fans of the team and their tendency to make so much noise to effect on-field play during games. A&M, which holds a trademark for the term, has made a name for itself as a trademark bully, going around and threatening basically anyone that uses anything remotely like that term, even as it has in the past infringed on the IP of others. The school has been so successful in locking down this term for use in anything sports related that the Seattle Seahawks, the NFL team that also refers to its fans as its “12th Man”, pay a licensing fee to the school to do so.

And now that licensing arrangement appears to be part of the reasoning A&M’s legal team used to sue a soap company based in Washington State for using the “12th Man” term as well. In the school’s filing, embedded below, it argues that because the soap company resides in the same state as the Seahawks, and because the company’s soap product “12th Man Hands” includes an image of a football on the packaging, this makes it an infringement on its trademark, despite soap and athletics not being in related marketplaces. The USPTO somehow actually bought this six-degrees-of-licensing-separation argument.

According to the trademark board, the soap company was trying to call to mind the Seahawks’ 12th Man thing when designing the soap. There’s even a football on the “12th Man Hands” soap bar, and the company acknowledged it was trying to reach Seahawks fans, which makes sense because it’s a Washington-based company.  But according to the board, the soap-makers didn’t clear their use of the 12th Man mark with A&M specifically. That appears to have hurt their case.

And the board ruled against the soap company. That’s ridiculous for several reasons. First, no linkage in geography, nor the company’s desire to reach Seahawks fans, creates confusion on its own in the public. Other than the image of a football, there is no other linkage to the Seahawks at all. It’s just a puck of soap with something of a stock image of a football being held by a hand. Nobody is going to look at that and think it was soap branded by the Seahawks.

Secondly, even if the above weren’t true, the confusion would be between the soap company and Seahawks, not Texas A&M. Whatever the licensing agreement between the Seahawks and the school, there is absolutely zero chance for anyone in the public thinking that Texas A&M has anything to do with this soap company. That, I’m confident saying, is completely inarguable. If anyone should have sued here, it should have been the Seahawks, and even that suit would have been ridiculous. A&M included information about past licensing deals for soap with other companies, but none of them were for “The 12th Man” use, and all of them were instead for university-specific terms and imagery, such as its logo.

How in the world the Trademark Board ever bought into this is beyond me.

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