Wednesday, January 19, 2005

The Devilish Case of the Angels' Name

I don't know much about televised sports, but I do know something about trademark law. I thus found it somewhat surprising and curious to hear that the owners of (former) Anaheim Angels have decided to change the team's name to the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. As a quick search of the P.T.O.'s records will demonstrate, they've even registered the new mark.

People in Orange County naturally took offense at the change. Although the City of Anaheim mounted a legal challenge based on its lease agreement with the Angels, that effort has thus far failed. I wonder, though, why the city didn't challenge the registration of the new mark. On what basis, you ask? On grounds that the mark is (deep breath) primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive.

Does that sound grim? It should. The Lanham Act (the federal statute that regulates trademarks, service marks, and the like) bars primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive marks from federal registration. 15 U.S.C. § 1052(e)(3) (2004). For a recent case applying that standard, see In Re California Innovations, Inc., 329 F.3d 1334 (Fed. Cir. 2003). The court there explained that, under § 1052(e)(3), registration must be denied to a mark
if (1) the primary significance of the mark is a generally known geographic location, (2) the consuming public is likely to believe the place identified by the mark indicates the origin of the goods bearing the mark, when in fact the goods do not come from that place, and (3) the misrepresentation was a material factor in the consumer's decision.

Id. at 1341.

Does Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim fail that test? That must remain a question of fact. Note, however, that the owners justified the change as a way to draw more viewers to Angels games. In other words, the owners deliberately chose the new mark as a ruse to fool the public into thinking that the Angels have more of a link to Los Angeles than the team really does. That would not look good in court.

Even if you don't think the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim is primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive, the mark certainly looks suspect under § 1052(e)(2) of the Lanham Act. That provision bars marks that are primarily geographically descriptive from the primary register unless and until the applicant, by dint of using the mark in commerce for some time, can show that the mark has become distinctive by acquiring "secondary meaning." But the freshly-minted Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim mark cannot yet have seen enough use to qualify as distinctive. It thus for now remains at best merely descriptive of the origin of the baseball services in question, and thus not ready for the primary register.

In sum, even on the most forgiving account, it looks like Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim does not belong on the primary register. If primarily geographically deceptively misdescriptive, the mark will never pass muster. If primarily geographically descriptive, the mark might at best someday qualify. I could go on, for there remain still other problems with the proposed name change. For now, though, I have to say that the Angels face a devilish trademark problem.

8 comments:

Maestro said...

This is a small point, but Anaheim doesn't have a lease agreement with the A's. The A's play in Oakland and are also known as the Athletics. Interesting post, though.

Tom W. Bell said...

Thanks for that correction. I've fixed the post. It goes to show, I suppose, that I really do *not* know much about baseball!

Gil said...

Hmm...

Perhaps their case is helped by the fact that "Los Angeles" means "The Angels".

Maybe they can argue that "Los Angeles" isn't primarily geographically descriptive, but is rather just making explicit a long-standing historical connection between the team and the general area called "Los Angeles".

Anonymous said...

I think your analysis here is seriously flawed. First, the "Los Angeles" and "Anaheim" monikers, as attached to "Angels," have both acquired secondary meaning from the days when the team played for many years as the "Los Angeles Angels" and "Anaheim Angels." Second, your "misdescriptive" argument falters, I think, on the phrase from In Re California Innovations, "when in fact the goods do not come from that place." The Angels do in fact play in Los Angeles, if you define Los Angeles, as most people do, as encompassing "the greater Los Angeles area" and not the city of Los Angeles itself. On the logic of your argument, no business in Orange County could rightfully describe itself as a "Los Angeles" company.

Tom W. Bell said...

Gil, as I noted the amount of misdescription is a question of fact. Note, however, that *nobody* calls Orange County or Riverside County "Los Angeles."

Los Angeleno--whoops! I mean "Anon. of 1:18"--I think you overreach. Again, it is a question of fact. And, notably, the Angels have not played in L.A. for some years. Trademarks don't exist in amber, you know. There's a strong case that whatever secondary meaning once attached to "Los Angeles Angels" has long since dissipated. Recall, after all, that the Angels gained national prominence recently, when they won the World Cup or whatever baseball fans call it, as the "Anaheim Angels."

Also, note that the registered mark is not "Greater L.A. Area Angels of Anaheim"! It quite plainly represents the Angels's ball playing services as originating in "Los Angeles," which, plainly, they do not. I call that misdescriptive because, well, it does not accurately describe the team.

Anonymous said...

Maybe they can call themselves "The Los Angeles CMSA Angels of Anaheim"?

Gabriel

Tom W. Bell said...

Would that stand for "Certainly Maybe Sorta' Area," Gabriel?

I'll bet we know what they *will* be called, at any rate: "The L.A. Angels." Sportscasters won't want to mess with the full name. And that is surely what the Angels' owners predict and want. Again, as I said, the new name looks and smells like a trick on consumers.

ELOISE said...

They just applied to register the mark two weeks ago; it's not federally registered yet. The Trademark Office will almost definitely give them a hard time about whether the geographic indications are deceptive.

But even if the USPTO refuses to register the team name, they'll still be able to use it -- unless someone sues them. You're right on this: it sounds like the City of Anaheim might have a good trademark case.