March Madness Stirs up Potential Trademark Litigation over “Dunk City”

March MadnessMarch Madness is always an exciting time of year. This year, Florida Gulf Coast University from Fort Myers became the first ever 15-seed to advance to the Sweet 16. Along the way, the team acquired the nickname “Dunk CIty,” referring to their high-flying and fast-paced offense that generates a higher-than-average number of alley-oops and dunks.

According to an article from ESPN, the school started capitalizing on the term and licensed merchandise at online and local retailers. The phrase gained so much attention, that after the first weekend of games, the school sold merchandise to people in 40 states and had the best-selling school merchandise on at least one website. The school estimates that it sold $200,000 worth of goods this March, compared with $20,000 worth of goods in March 2012.

All of this attention caused a Florida music producer to file for a trademark for the term “Dunk City” with the US patent and trademark office. An online search of the trademark office’s website also shows that someone trademarked “Dunk City Grill” to protect apparel and the name of their restaurant. Both filing were made within the last week of March. The law firm that manages licensing for the school asserts that the term is inextricably linked to the school. Without the school, and the success of the basketball team, the term wouldn’t be as popular as it is today. The school has not filed for trademark protection yet.

Fortunately for the school, registration of the mark does not automatically confer ownership. A registrant must also show that they were the first person to use the mark in interstate commerce. The school has sent cease-and-desist letters to every time it has found someone selling unlicensed merchandise, and it will be able to use that to support its claim that it was the first business using that term.

Trademark disputes can result in highly specialized litigation in federal court (i.e., expensive) whether it is because of a basketball team in Florida or a startup in Louisiana. It will be interesting to see where this goes.


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