Trademarks as Membership Marks – Hells Angels, Fresno Bulldogs Reply

Trademarks are often used as membership insignia for various organizations, groups and fans… like the Hells Angels and the Fresno State Bulldogs football team.  In fact, one of the primary reasons why a trademark registration is so valuable is because it can create a clear link between brands and their members and fans.  Members and fans generally want to be associated with brands and will wear merchandise bearing their favorite brands.  (The exclusive rights granted to an owner of a trademark registered with the USPTO helps make this happen.  By granting an owner exclusive rights to use a trademark on particular goods or services, then it’s easier to avoid customer confusion as to the source of the goods and services. This in turn often strengthens brands by increasing brand awareness and public recognition).

Using trademarks as Membership Marks can raise some interesting situations regarding trademark use and infringement.  Here are two interesting situations raised by membership marks that are registered USPTO trademarks:

  • Hells Angels, Example #1: The Hells Angels motorcycle club owns registered USPTO Reg No. 1136494  trademarks which are valuable membership insignia and the Hells Angels, like all trademark owners, have the right to pursue folks and businesses who use their trademarks without permission (ie trademark infringers).  In a recent NY Times article, the trademark attorney for the Hells Angels addressed the issue of pursuing trademark infringers by stating that, “[t]he intent is not just to punish the infringers but to educate the public that the Hells Angels marques are well guarded and not generic and that they must not be infringed upon.”  This statement relates to a strategy for dealing with other folks or businesses who use the Hells Angels trademarks without permission or who use confusingly similar trademarks.
  • Fresno State Bulldogs, Example #2: Fresno State University in California owns registered trademarks featuring their bulldog mascot.  Wearing merchandise produced by the University featuring the bulldog mascot and team name displays allegiance to the team – ie “fan membership insignia.”  A recent NY Times arUSPTO Serial No. 86050169ticle reported that it’s not only wholesome football fans who are flocking to buy and wear jerseys, shirts, hats and other merchandise produced and sold by the University bearing the registered bulldog trademark… but that a violent street gang has also adopted the Fresno State Bulldogs trademark and apparel as a gang symbol.  Evidently, the gang is purchasing and using legitimate University shirts, jerseys and other merchandise bearing the registered Bulldogs trademark as a gang symbol indicating gang membership.  Buying legitimate University merchandise is obviously not trademark infringement; although, it will be interesting to see how the University develops a strategy for dealing with upholding its brand image.  Unfortunately, the University’s registered trademark is now playing a double “membership” role… indicating two drastically different types of membership.

These two situations highlight two vastly different circumstances involving membership marks that are registered USPTO trademarks.  Reading NY Times articles on both situations described above that were printed only 20 days apart inspired this blog post on trademarks that are used as membership insignia.

BY: Vanessa Kaster, Esq., LL.M.

vk@kasterlegal.com

For more information see, USPTO Registration 1136494 for one of the Hells Angels’ trademark registrations; USPTO Serial Number 86050169 for one of Fresno State’s trademark applications;  Pride and Peril of a Logo, published in the NY Times on 11/9/13 by M. Wollan and Despite Outlaw Image, Hells Angels Sue Often, published in the NY Times on 11/29/13 by S.E. Kovaleski, and the USPTO Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS) which is a tool for searching the USPTO’s database of registered trademarks and prior pending applications at http://tess2.uspto.gov; @iplegalfreebies and www.kasterlegal.com.

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