We’ve written many times before about those big name events, like March Madness, the Olympics and the Super Bowl. Events that you and your advertisers are just dying to tie into your own local event – a sale, a party or maybe the introduction of some special new product or service. Well, like the Super Bowl, March Madness is a trademarked term, and you need to exercise care in its use. While the company that owns the trademark (a company partially owned by the NCAA) may not be as aggressive as the NFL or the Olympic Committees in protecting its rights, it can still be an issue should you start promoting your March Madness sale without permission and get caught.
When we wrote our usual warning about the use of the term "Super Bowl" in advertising earlier this year, I received one message asking if I worked for the NFL. A reader who obviously had trademark law experience complained that I was too cautious in urging broadcasters to avoid the use of the term Super Bowl in a commercial. The argument from the reader was that, if used in the right way, not to name an event but just to say something like – "buy a big screen TV so that can watch the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards and all the best television that is coming your way this year," your use of the term in a commercial could probably be justified should it be challenged. While that may be the case, making the distinction between this arguably permissible kind of use, and a more problematic use (like "come on down to Joe’s electronics for our Super Bowl Sale on big screen TVs") is a nuanced issue. By avoiding the trademarked term in advertising, and instead sticking with something more generic – like "it is tournament time again, and you can watch all the action with a new big screen TV from Joe’s Electronics" – avoids any of the issues that might arise if you use the trademarked term in your commercial.
Obviously using "March Madness" in passing in your news, talk or entertainment programming is not going to get you into trouble. But using it as a branding term – trying to pass your station off as your "official March Madness station" or an advertiser suggesting that they were "the March Madness restaurant" are much more likely to cause harm by trying to suggest an official connection between the product or service being sold and the trademarked term.
And, as we write each time that we do one of these articles, the issue is one of trademarks or service marks, not copyright. There is a copyright in the telecast itself, but the limitations on the right to use the name comes from trademark law.
Best of luck with your brackets, and with staying out of trouble on your basketball-themed commercials in the coming weeks.