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March Madness attracts the eagle eyes of trademark lawyers

March 18, 2009 |  1:30 pm
Darren_collison_kgkysanc
UCLA guard Darren Collison, whose team is going to the NCAA tournament. Credit: Alex Gallardo / Los Angeles Times

College basketball fans are preparing for tomorrow's tip-off of March Madness, the annual tournament that lowers productivity in the workplace, raises blood pressure and drains wallets of cash. March is also a busy month for the lawyers in charge of enforcing the National Collegiate Athletic Assn.'s trademarked properties, which include "March Madness," "Elite Eight" and "Final Four."

The Internet has made it easier for people to try to profit off the tournament by creating bracket pools, iPhone apps and even streaming CBS' live game feed on their websites. The NCAA's lawyers are hard at work trying to thwart them. Add the down economy, and they've got hundreds of enforcement issues to deal with this month alone.

This year, attorneys are seeing a spate of "ambush marketing," which means using names such as "March Madness" or "Oscars" to try and make a profit without actually owning the trademark rights.

"We’re seeing more unauthorized activity than we have in the past," said Doug Masters, a partner at law firm Loeb & Loeb, and outside counsel for the NCAA. "The downward economy has created a spike in unauthorized activity. When times are tough, instead of spending your money to get sales, you try to leverage off of other people's investments."

That's especially true as the cost of creating an event around the tournament online or on cellphones becomes lower and lower, he said. Check closely and you'll see many iPhone apps and other tournament sites don't actually use the term "March Madness." The NCAA will probably send out hundreds of cease- and-desist letters this year about ...

...  the basketball tournament, said Jay Rossello, director of legal affairs at the NCAA. Guilty parties include mom-and-pop shops, casinos and Fortune 500 companies, he said.

Now wait a minute, you may be thinking. Why can't a company stream CBS' free feed on its website or create a March Madness application for cellphones? It's a free country, right?

In this case, Rossello says, not so much. People or entities can't use the NCAA's marks to promote their products or services in a commercial way. That means no posters on doors of casinos inviting people to March Madness gamblepalooza, no Internet ads luring people to websites where they can buy unauthorized March Madness gear and no March Madness ads on websites trying to get people to bars or concerts or events that aren't NCAA sponsors.

Any of the above instances may conflict with the sponsors who paid big bucks to be affiliated with the March Madness logo, and advertisers want to make sure they're getting their money's worth in this economy.

Exempt are people or entities who use the trademarked March Madness phrase in editorial or news content, which is why we were able to say March Madness 11 separate times in this post without fear of the NCAA beating down our door. March Madness. Whoops, we did it again. Take that, online casinos.

-- Alana Semuels

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