If no name, at least history remains

June 29, 1994|By Jon Morgan | Jon Morgan,Sun Staff Writer

The NFL may own the rights to the name Colts, but it doesn't own Johnny U.

Although U.S. District Judge Larry J. McKinney sided this week with the NFL on most points of its case against Baltimore's Canadian Football League team, he refused to bar the CFL from invoking memories of Baltimore's football heritage.

The practical impact of the decision was not immediately clear yesterday, but it appears the CFL will be free to promote itself as a continuation of the football tradition here, and will be able to invoke the memories of John Unitas and other players from those days.

Baltimore CFL team owner Jim Speros said he thinks he will be able to go ahead with Baltimore Colts Alumni night and other promotions.

"Anything to do with Colts history is not infringement," Speros said.

McKinney agreed with arguments by Speros' attorneys that the NFL has limited claim to the goodwill left behind when the Colts moved from Baltimore to Indianapolis in 1984.

"The years have separated the Baltimore Colts from the Indianapolis Colts," McKinney wrote.

The judge said it was significant that so much time had elapsed and that the NFL allowed the Baltimore Colts service mark registration to expire.

"It seems to this court in this case that 10 years and the abandonment of a registered trademark add up to an inability of the plaintiffs [NFL] to prohibit the defendant from referring to the Baltimore Colts in promotional material," McKinney wrote.

He cited a decision last year in which Major League Baseball Properties was not allowed to stop a New York restaurant from calling itself the Brooklyn Dodger. In a move often compared with the Colts' relocation to Indianapolis, the Dodgers moved to Los Angeles in 1958.

In that case, a judge ruled that the restaurant was legally associating itself not with the current baseball team, but with a "nontransportable cultural institution" left behind.

"At least it gives Speros the ability to use Johnny Unitas and the old team," said Ned T. Himmelrich, a trademark specialist with Gordon, Feinblatt, Rothman, Hoffberger and Hollander and the chairman of the Maryland Bar Association Intellectual Property Committee.

It is not clear, however, precisely how the CFL will be able to use the name, Himmelrich said. Elsewhere in the judge's order, the league is prohibited from incorporating the word Colts or Baltimore Colts -- or any similar sounding combination -- in its promotions.

Attorneys for Speros did not respond to requests for comment.

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