A banner headline on NBCSports.com recently blared, “Deion Sanders Is Cornering the Market on Trademarks.” I got curious about what 2 time Super Bowl Hall-of-Famer Neon Deion is up to that provoked the headline, and took a deeper look.
But is what he’s doing with his trademark filings really that unusual, and does the clickbaity headline truly explain what’s going on deeper down?
Let’s go deep into the cut and see if Sanders is in the pocket, or if his apparent clutch play is really a foul waiting to happen!
First & 10: Deion Did WHAT???
Since he first set foot on the professional gridiron, Deion Sanders has been electrifying football fans. Although he’s since retired and started his second act as a college football coach for the Colorado Buffaloes, he’s still making waves and big plays. One of the most notable things about his coaching is his usage of colorful phrases like “bull junk” (a PG version of “bullshit”) and the notorious demand that his players “Give me my theme music!” Okay, so far, so good. They’re quotable. They’re interesting. You can see how they could get a team motivated in the locker room or during a huddle.
But most coaches, and for that matter, most people, don’t try to trademark their signature phrases. It literally wouldn’t occur to them to do so, and so they don’t.
Then again, Deion Sanders isn’t most coaches or most people. An undeniable celebrity in his own right, a legendary athlete, and a veritable fountain of quotable quotes, Sanders is just following a playbook that has been well-established by other celebrities from writers to actors to singers. And that’s raised some eyebrows and led to some–well, let’s be charitable and call them “misunderstandings,” not least by the person who wrote the headline I mentioned earlier.
Flag on the Play: How Trademark Works (and Why)
Trademark is designed to help protect people’s intellectual property and maintain an association in the mind of the public between the property in question and the person by showing that the mark in question is a product of “The Real McCoy,” as it were. Trademark is somewhat limited in that you can’t just slap a trademark on any old thing you wish, from a shirt to a space shuttle, and declare it’s yours. You have to go through the filing process, shut down any opposition, convince the Trademark Office that the mark you’re pursuing isn’t too broad to be viable, and then defend the mark against infringement once your mark has been approved, assuming it is. (Remember the flap about Mariah Carey trying to trademark the phrase “Queen of Christmas” last year?)
Once you’ve jumped all those hoops successfully, you have to stay in your lane.
You can’t claim trademark protection on a calendar if printed goods such as calendars weren’t included in your original application. You also have to be able to demonstrate that any apparent infringement actually undermines the association between your IP and/or trademark and your actual brand and that is not always an easy thing to achieve.
Considering all this, Sanders’ moves to trademark some of his signature phrases aren’t all that unusual in celebrity circles. Even the number of trademarks he’s currently applying for is downright modest when compared with, say, Mariah Carey, Taylor Swift, or Donald Trump.
He may be starting a clothing line. He could be planning to produce motivational seminars or videos turning on those phrases. And he’s perfectly within his rights to try to safeguard his IP in a way that makes him a profit.
2nd & 3: Why the Headline Doesn’t Work
Given these facts, it’s fair to say that the headline doesn’t make sense. (Although, to be completely fair, I should note here that this article was posted under the heading “Rumor Mill,” which helps blunt or at least explain a little of the sensationalist bent of the headline itself.) If Sanders isn’t doing anything unusual or egregious, like trying to claim ownership of an entire letter of the alphabet, a whole year, or a holiday season, then he’s only doing what many celebrities have done and set himself up to create new revenue streams for himself based on words and phrases he himself either coined or made famous. It’s not like, for example, when Donald Trump borrowed a fairly obscure phrase from the late President Ronald Reagan’s 1980 campaign and turned it into a movement. And, yes, I do in fact mean THAT phrase.
The lines themselves are fairly uncontroversial too, for the most part, the standout alleged filing being an application for the phrase “F around and find out,” which has been in common usage in various and frequently more vulgar forms since at the latest 2020, and probably well before that. By contrast, “bull junk” and “Working on Twerking” seem positively milquetoast and unlikely to ruffle many feathers.
Touchdown: The Ball is Good!
To put all this plainly, Sanders isn’t doing anything weird, wild, or out of the box here. In fact, if anything, he’s demonstrating the savvy that many celebrities have shown in setting himself for a successful third act as a business mogul while continuing to enjoy a celebrated second act. Broncos quarterback John Elway moved on from football to become the owner of a chain of car dealerships in the Denver area. Michael Jordan is as known today for his steakhouses, his signature cologne and his eponymous shoes as his prowess on the basketball court for the Chicago Bulls. The only thing he might be doing differently is going after all these trademarks seemingly at once, but even that isn’t unusual if you’ve been watching what Taylor Swift’s IP and trademark portfolio looks like lately.
In short, while it may look like a big, bold play in the headlines, in reality it’s just good business and IP savvy in action. Whether it’ll turn up on his highlight reel remains to be seen, but after reviewing the play, the refs have called the play a touchdown.
For now, at least.
ABOUT JOHN RIZVI, ESQ.
John Rizvi is a Registered and Board Certified Patent Attorney, Adjunct Professor of Intellectual Property Law, best-selling author, and featured speaker on topics of interest to inventors and entrepreneurs (including TEDx).
His books include “Escaping the Gray” and “Think and Grow Rich for Inventors” and have won critical acclaim including an endorsement from Kevin Harrington, one of the original sharks on the hit TV show – Shark Tank, responsible for the successful launch of over 500 products resulting in more than $5 billion in sales worldwide. You can learn more about Professor Rizvi and his patent law practice at www.ThePatentProfessor.com
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