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Chicago lawyer tracks down ‘March Madness’ trademark violators

Douglas Masters, a Chicago lawyer responsible for tracking down and stopping violators who misuse the “March Madness” trademark, is a busy man these days.

He starts seeing and being notified of wrongful “March Madness” trademark use — mostly by retail and online merchants and marketers — right before the NCAA men’s basketball tournament starts and again right before the Final Four matchup.

“Those are the two key times,” said Masters, a Lincolnwood native who is the NCAA’s outside counsel and managing partner at the Chicago office of the law firm of Loeb & Loeb LLC. He also acts as co-chair of the law firm’s national intellectual property protection practice. (And he also volunteered that he was in the same section of the same 1988 graduating class at Harvard Law School as Michelle Obama; each graduating class is divided into four sections.)

Masters sends out “hundreds” — that’s as specific as he would get — of cease-and-desist letters to violators, and most cease using the trademark with no argument, he said.

Douglas Masters works like mad this time of year to protect the NCAA's trademarked phrases.  |  Loeb & Loeb LLC photo

Douglas Masters works like mad this time of year to protect the NCAA’s trademarked phrases. | Loeb & Loeb LLC photo

Masters says the number of retailers, bars, restaurants, marketers and others who try to use without proper licensing the March Madness slogan and its affiliated slogans — Sweet Sixteen, the Elite Eight and Final Four — has increased with the burgeoning numbers of online sellers, retailers and marketers. The violators usually market to young people and in geographic areas where college basketball is popular.

“You don’t see it done [by companies marketing] nursing-home services,” he noted.

Even the term “March Mania” is a no-no because “mania” is a synonym for “madness,” he said.

“Our rights are strong enough to stop [a phrase] that’s that close to ‘March Madness,’” Masters said.

He believes the trademark rights will remain strong because the big national advertisers who lay rightful claim to the March Madness trademark “are very motivated and excited to become sponsors and to get access to NCAA brands in connection with their products and services.”

“The marketplace is telling us there is tremendous value [associated with the trademark rights],” he said, declining to give trademark licensing costs.

Masters puts trademark violators into two categories: Unsophisticated people who have no knowledge that they are doing anything wrong, and those who are “calculated and motivated,” hoping to get away with using the trademark without getting caught.

Masters got his NCAA-affiliated job in 2000 after he helped settle trademark disagreements among the NCAA, the Illinois High School Association and Intersport, a private company that produced the “March Madness Coaches Show” on TV and trademarked the “March Madness” name.

The fighting entities decided they’d be better off joining forces and battling other people trying to exploit the March Madness name without permission, he said.

While Masters is busy with his trademark work, he says he still likes to catch glimpses of the games on a TV set in one of the conference rooms at his law office.

“I’m also a fan,” he said. But he said he cannot watch entire games.

“I have a day job,” he said.