Should This Logo Be Illegal?

A blog about business and economics.
May 16 2012 12:20 PM

Should This Logo Be Illegal?

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Megan Greenwall offers a sad story:

[Everette] Steele started making Barves jokes on Twitter, and others quickly joined in. So he and his wife, who jointly run a social media marketing firm, began printing t-shirts featuring the joke team name and selling them on the internet. Being a fan and a community-minded guy, he decided to donate all proceeds to the Atlanta Braves Foundation, which supports nonprofits around the Atlanta metro area.
Seems harmless enough, right? Beneficial, even, to have a superfan turn a joke into financial support for good causes? Not to Major League Baseball, it doesn't. Within a few days of the first local media stories about the Barves products, the Steeles received a cease-and-desist letter from the league for infringing on the trademark it holds over a script team name (no matter the spelling) above a tomahawk. 
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This is a reminder that beyond economics, there's a substantial freedom issue involved in these intellectual property cases. It's conceivable that if Steele were to try to litigate this that he'd ultimately prevail on first amendment grounds. But in practice that would be very expensive, so any firm large enough to have lawyers on retainer has a lot of latitude to intimidate people with cease-and-desist letters. And yet this kind of thing never seems to make it into things like an Index of Economic Freedom or get denounced as a form of tyranny. But by even the narrowest negative liberty conception of freedom, a law saying that you can't print a T-shirt with a "BARVES" logo on it is a substantial restriction of liberty.

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