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Cubs, Nationals In Dispute With Financial Startup Over 'W' Logo

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You're not gonna believe this one.

David Banks/Getty Images

Companies and organizations are always protective of their trademarks and wordmarks. That's just part of basic trademark law.

When you read this report of a trademark war between the Cubs, Washington Nationals, MLB and a small Washington, D.C.-based financial startup called WalletHub, you'll shake your head. Or your fist. Or something.

Here's the nuts and bolts of this dispute, from the link above. It's over the letter "W":

“It is common for trademark owners to sometimes overreach in protecting their marks,” said S. Lloyd Smith, an attorney at Buchanan, Ingersoll and Rooney who represents Evolution Finance. “They’re always concerned or cautious that if they don’t enforce their marks they might lose their rights.”

But many other consumer brands feature the letter W as part or all of their logo. Walgreens. W Hotels. Wilson Sporting Goods. Electronic records for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office show more than 1,000 trademarks for just the letter W.

“The real question is why does MLB care?” Smith said. “They don’t own the letter W. There’s lots of other Ws out there. They’re just plainly overreaching in this case."

I agree completely with Smith. I'm reproducing here (under the concept of "fair use") the image that's on the Washington Post article linked above:

w logos nationals cubs from washington post

The "W" at the top left is supposed to be an alternate "W" used by the Nationals, although it's not shown here on SportsLogos.net, a site that usually has a comprehensive list of team logos, both primary and alternate.

The "W" at the bottom left is one you should instantly recognize. It's the "W" from the "win" flag that's flown on the Wrigley Field scoreboard after Cubs victories, a flag the Cubs have made considerable dollars on in recent years in sales to people who wave it in the stands after Cubs wins, as shown in the photo at the top of this post.

While the block style of the "W" is similar to the one Evolution Finance is using for WalletHub, do you think there's really any resemblance? The green color background, to me, makes the financial company's "W" stand out as completely different. There's no likelihood, in my view, that use of that "W" by Evolution Finance would “cause confusion, to cause mistake, and to deceive the trade and public,” as stated in MLB's complaint.

If anything, MLB ought to be worried about a lawsuit from Walgreens:

nationals walgreens

That one's a lot closer to the Nats logo than the WalletHub one is, wouldn't you say? Same color scheme, almost identical script?

I certainly recognize the need for companies to protect their trademarks and brands, but at first glance, this case seems like big, bad MLB bullying a smaller company. However, according to the Post article, it seems as if the parties are trying to resolve this amicably:

“We have been engaging in conversations with Evolution Finance about how its mark can be used and registered so as to avoid confusion with the MLB marks. We believe we are close to a resolution and are interested in resolving this matter amicably,” league spokesman Matt Bourne said via e-mail.

Representatives from the Nationals and Cubs deferred questions to the national organization. The attorney handling the dispute, Mary L. Kevlin of Cowan, Liebowitz and Latman, also directed questions to the league.

Evolution Finance CEO Odysseas Papadimitriou believes that the league has negotiated in good faith, but the restrictions it proposes are too onerous. A draft agreement shown to The Washington Post primarily demands the start-up not use its logo in connection with baseball or softball. However, it also requires Evolution Finance to agree it will not try to trademark a stand-alone W for any other goods or services.

Let's hope the two sides can come to a peaceful resolution that doesn't require Evolution Finance to make major changes in its branding. Small startups need this kind of thing, too. Here's another article on this topic, via Crain's Chicago Business, which says there might be larger issues at stake from this case:

The WalletHub dispute comes amid a pending case before the U.S. Supreme Court over the power of a trademark board ruling.

That decision (between parties B&B Hardware and Hargis Industries) will determine whether a trademark board decision on a dispute — like that of WalletHub and the MLB — would preclude the league from taking the fight to district court to sue for trademark infringement. "It might raise the stakes" of the WalletHub dispute, said McBride.

The WalletHub-MLB dispute heads back to the trademark board next month, while a Supreme Court ruling on the B&B Hardware dispute is expected later this year.

In my view, the Nationals would be better off if they changed their primary logo to the interlocking "DC" that they've used as an alternate logo since the team moved to Washington from Montreal in 2005. It's more modern and would give the team a real identity, instead of assuming the script "W" from the failed Senators franchise that jilted D.C. fans in 1972.

Finally, I know there are a number of attorneys who post here on a regular basis. If you've got some thoughts on this from a legal standpoint, please post in the comments.