Colors as Trademarks: The Gloves Are On In This Baseball Brawl

Rawlings Sporting Goods Co. has brought suit (complaint here) against competitor Wilson Sporting Goods Co. for giving a Wilson® baseball glove with “metallic gold-colored webbing, stitching and lettering” to a major league player — Brandon Phillips of the Cincinatti Reds — who has won the “Rawlings Gold Glove” award in the past but is an endorser of Wilson rather than Rawlings.

Every baseball fan has heard of the Gold Glove awards given annually to 9 players from the National League and American League, respectively, for their defensive prowess. Some fans may not be aware, however, that the award was associated with a company. The award was apparently instigated in 1957 by Rawlings and is officially known as the Rawlings Gold Glove Award. (That’s certainly how Rawlings and the official site of Major League Baseball both refer to it.)

Rawlings gives winners a trophy made out of a golden colored glove:

Although Rawlings owns incontestable federal registrations for word marks such as GOLD GLOVE, GOLD GLOVE AWARD and RAWLINGS GOLD GLOVE AWARD, it cites only common law rights for the “trade dress embodied in the distinctive famous gold-colored baseball glove that forms the centerpiece of the world famous Gold Glove Award.” Rawlings claims that it also gives winning players a “functional baseball glove” that “includes metallic gold indicia on the glove itself.” Whether the players actually use these gloves, and how visible and recognizable the “metallic gold indicia” are to the public, will be good topics for discovery in the case.

As many readers will know, attempts to trademark colors of products have a long and storied past, ranging from the 1995 Supreme Court case involving Qualitex’s green-gold dry cleaning pads to the more recent case involving Louboutin’s red colored shoe soles, covered in our blog here. In this case, an added wrinkle would seem to arise where a color is commonly associated with excellence (i.e. gold medals) and with awards. The Golden Gloves for boxers, Golden Globe awards for the film industry, and the Golden Spikes for the country’s top college baseball player all come to mind, and a search on reveals a host of more or less obscure awards involving gold-colored items. When a player wears a glove with gold webbing, stitching, and lettering, is he arguably sending a signal that he is both excellent and flashy? And if he is also more specifically implying that he is a Gold Glove-caliber defender, where is the harm in that if it’s true?

Rawlings will have to try and prove that the gold-colored glove Wilson gave to Brandon Phillips will cause people to believe that Wilson, not Rawlings, is the sponsor of the Gold Glove award. Survey evidence would seem to be the key to this dispute. It will also be interesting to learn whether Rawlings has ever run advertising or promotional campaigns in which it called attention to the “metallic gold indicia” on winning players’ gloves.

Photo by Flickr user Ken N.

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