The NFL vs Free Speech

A blog about business and economics.
Feb. 1 2012 3:51 PM

The NFL vs Free Speech

You've doubtless heard things about how Pepsi is the official soda of the National Football League or some such thing, but you probably didn't know that these sponsorship arrangements have real implications for free speech. In particular, the legal stance of the NFL is that since it owns a trademark on the phrase "Super Bowl" and since Papa John's is the official pizza sponsor of the Super Bowl, it is illegal for Pizza Hut to advertise a Super Bowl special. Instead they're offering a "Big Deal for the Big Game" as a workaround. But it gets worse:

Many marketers refer to the Super Bowl simply as "The Big Game," a substitution so ubiquitous that the NFL tried to trademark that phrase in 2006. The move was opposed by a long list of advertisers, but ultimately it was undone by a college football rivalry between the University of California at Berkeley and Stanford University that has been known as "The Big Game" for more than a century. The league abandoned that trademark application in 2007.
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We can of course be glad that the pre-existing Cal-Berkeley rivalry game has left the workaround in place, but the ability of people to talk about the Super Bowl shouldn't hinge on that kind of happenstance. I can't even begin to imagine what the public interest in interpreting trademark law in this way would be. I'm going to put a "Super Bowl" tag on this post and hope the cops don't come after me.

Matthew Yglesias is the executive editor of Vox and author of The Rent Is Too Damn High.

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