The Cleveland Guardians roller derby team, which has operated under the moniker for years and which had maintained a social media presence and owned the clevelandguardians.com website, today filed a federal lawsuit in the Ohio Northern District Court seeking an injunction against the Cleveland Guardians Major League Baseball team, alleging the professional organization violated the rights of their squad with the team's name change.
first reported on the lawsuit this morning. (Full PDF of the lawsuit at the end of this story.)
"The same laws that protect baseball team owners’ trademark rights, though, also work in reverse. A Major League club cannot simply take a smaller team’s name and use it for itself. Confusion would still arise. Yet that is precisely what Defendant, Cleveland Guardians Baseball Company, LLC (f/k/a Cleveland Indians Baseball Company), seeks to do. Despite knowing of Plaintiff’s established rights, Defendant wants to call its team the 'Cleveland Guardians' too," the lawsuit reads. "Economic might, however, does not make legal right. There cannot be two 'Cleveland Guardians' teams in Cleveland, and, to be blunt, Plaintiff was here first."
The roller derby team alleges the MLB name change was undertaken in a fashion meant to give it little time to address it and when confronted, the Cleveland Guardians baseball organization offered "a truly nominal amount" for the team's url and social media accounts, according to a statement by Christopher Pardo, the lawyer for the derby team. The suit alleges trademark violations.
“Major League Baseball would never let someone name their lacrosse team the ‘Chicago Cubs’ if the team was in Chicago, or their soccer team the ‘New York Yankees’ if that team was in New York – nor should they,” Pardo said in a statement to WKYC. “The same laws that protect Major League Baseball from the brand confusion that would occur in those examples also operate in reverse to prevent what the Indians are trying to do here. By taking the name ‘Cleveland Guardians’ overnight, the Indians knowingly and willfully eviscerated the rights of the original owner of that name – the real Cleveland Guardians.”
The then-Cleveland Indians in late July announced the new name, debuted with a video narrated by Tom Hanks.
Observers quickly noted the existence of the Guardians roller derby team and the relative silence from them regarding the name change. The team was aware of the derby team and in late July Terry Pluto reported
, "From everything I’m told from top MLB sources, there is no problem with the Tribe’s new name in terms of trademarks, etc. In fact, there was a delay of about a week before announcing the name as the team and MLB were clearing up the last of these issues."
The lawsuit details some of what had happened in the preceding months.
"On April 8, 2021, the team surreptitiously filed a trademark application for the CLEVELAND GUARDIANS name in the small, East African island nation of Mauritius, effectively hiding the application unless one knew where to look," it reads.
Then, in June, the Indians, through lawyers, got in contact with the Guardians roller derby team to let them know the name was under consideration. It requested pictures of jerseys and other designs as it decided whether to pursue a purchase of the intellectual property.
A day or two later, Gary Sweatt, the owner of the roller derby team, got back in touch with the lawyers and said it wouldn't make any sense for them both to be named the Guardians, as the roller derby's online presence would be squashed by the MLB franchise. He offered to sell all the intellectual property and rename his squad and asked the Indians to make an offer.
That offer, according to the lawsuit, was exceedingly low. Sweatt made a counter offer and didn't hear back from anyone for a month. Meanwhile, the Indians, on the day before the team announced the new name, filed two new federal trademark applications in which, the lawsuit says, they claimed no other person or entity had been using the Cleveland Guardians name for merchandise or business. (The Guardians roller derby team had registered with the Ohio Secretary of State in 2017.)
"The Cleveland Guardians have attempted several times to negotiate with the Indians to resolve this dispute," the lawsuit says. "Those talks, which began right after the July 23 announcement, broke down on October 26, 2021."
The MLB team has not yet made a statement this morning.
Read the full lawsuit below. (Mobile readers might have to switch to desktop view.)