Do U.S. Trademark Office Rulings Give Early Insight Into Possible New Names for Cleveland Indians?

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click to enlarge Do U.S. Trademark Office Rulings Give Early Insight Into Possible New Names for Cleveland Indians?
Cleveland Spiders concept by Ben Peters submitted to Scene's Redesign the Tribe contest

Recent rulings by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office might, upon first glance, provide hints of names possibly under consideration by the Cleveland Major League Baseball franchise to replace the Indians moniker, but experts say don't read too much into the early action.

When Cleveland announced last year that it was seriously evaluating the organization's problematic name, it raised the green flag on a string of land-grab trademark applications made by hopeful speculators on everything from the Cleveland Spiders to the Cleveland Tribe and in between. Essentially, $225 long-shot lottery tickets bought in the hopes that the Trademark Office would approve the application and the Dolans, settled upon that specific choice, would come calling with a lucrative offer to acquire the rights.

Here it's worth recapping that long-shot process.

It includes first a review by the USPTO, which takes on average three to four months. Should it grant initial approval, next comes a 30-day period of public opposition where folks (for example, an MLB franchise) can advance competing claims. Before, during and after, the USPTO is looking for the applicant to use the name or phrase for an actual purpose — merchandise, for example — to show you're not simply squatting on an idea.

Which brings us to this week's news, or "news."

The USPTO granted the Indians an extension to file objections to applications made for Cleveland Guardians, Cleveland Warriors, Cleveland Natives and Cleveland Foresters.

Does that mean they're interested in using one of those four options?

Maybe, but maybe not.

"If I'm speculating, I'd guess that the baseball team opposed this on the basis that the filers don't have a bona fide intent to use the mark in the stream of commerce — trademark protection is a creature of the Lanham Act, which is essentially a customer protection statute, so you can't protect a mark unless it's associated with commerce," Andrew Geronimo, the Director of the First Amendment Clinic at the Case Western Reserve University School of Law, told Scene. "If the team thinks that people registered these marks improperly — that is, with the intent to profit off of selling the marks, rather than associating them with goods in the stream of commerce — then it's likely those people wouldn't be up for a potentially lengthy and expensive trademark opposition fight, which would allow them to clear the decks of any potential new names."

More likely than having the Guardians or Warriors under serious consideration, the team could simply be objecting to any and all applications for a baseball team in Cleveland as it makes its way through the complex process of rebranding a franchise.

"The team's request for an extension of time in which to oppose these marks is a fairly routine matter at the USPTO, which might simply mean that the team is considering its options regarding these potential names. The team may be trying to negotiate with these applicants, or otherwise convince them to abandon their filings," Geronimo said. "If you're reading the tea leaves for what the new team name might be, this is a clue, but it's not a very good one — a better clue would be the basis of the opposition if the team ever files one."

Meanwhile, in separate but related news, the office officially rejected an application on Cleveland Spiders made by Arlen Love, a west coast Indians fan who was among the first to submit paperwork last year and who told Scene, "I saw that it was available, and I thought it'd be cool to go back to the original team, a shoutout to the past, and I thought I'm going to do this and will it into existence. And if they do or don't [go with Spiders], I can always make merchandise later."

He can make merchandise, he just can't have an official trademark to do so, the USTPO said in a preliminary ruling, stating that the Spiders moniker is most familiarly understood to reference the defunct Cleveland baseball team from the late 1800s and that Love's application failed to argue he had a unique claim to the name that, at this point, is "informational."

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