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September 16, 2019

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Don’t bet on a Golden Knights name change in trademark case

Vegas Golden Knights Unveiling Ceremony

Steve Marcus

The logo for the Vegas Golden Knights is unveiled during a ceremony in the Toshiba Plaza at T-Mobile Arena Tuesday, Nov. 22, 2016.

Click to enlarge photo

This combination photo shows the logos of the Vegas Golden Knights hockey team and the U.S. Army's Golden Knights parachute team.

Even though the Army is opposing the Golden Knights trademark, don’t sell those Vegas jerseys just yet.

No matter the ultimate outcome of the dispute, trademark attorneys agree there is little likelihood of the Golden Knights becoming the Black Knights or Sand Knights.

Trademark attorney Patrick Jennings of Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman LLP in Washington, D.C., has followed the Golden Knights trademark situation for months and believes the team’s name is safe.

“That would seem to be fairly unlikely to me,” Jennings said of a name change. “The possibility of a logo change would seem (relatively) a bit more likely.”

Jennings suggested that in similar cases at this point in their evolution, the parties have been in discussions and the opposition filing is a normal part of the process.

“It’s almost like a fight,” Jennings said. “People are trying to feel each other out.”

A settlement at some point down the line would be a likely outcome, Jennings said. The possibility of spending years in court and potentially hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees rarely appeals to either side.

The Army’s goal, Jennings said, might be to limit the Golden Knights’ use of the name and logo to the hockey sphere, or possibly even to have the team adjust its logo from anything similar to that of the military parachute team.

Jennings also said from the Army’s perspective, pushing toward court might not make sense because even a victory would not prevent the Golden Knights from using their name.

“Even if the Army won the opposition, in some ways you’ve won the proverbial pig in a poke,” Jennings said.

The chance of anyone confusing the Vegas Golden Knights and the Army Golden Knights is slim, attorneys agreed.

“Are people really going to be confused between the new Vegas hockey team and the acrobatic parachute team from the Army? Yeah, I don’t think so,” Jennings said.

Jennifer Craft, a local trademark attorney for Dickinson Wright law firm, also believes the Golden Knights have nothing to worry about.

“I would be very surprised if they rule in the Army’s favor,” said Craft, who works in the law firm’s intellectual property and media department, specifically focused on sports and entertainment. “I think the hockey team has a pretty strong case.”

Craft said the opposition filed by the Army is typical in her line of work.

“You understand that there are a ton of teams and organizations that use black and gold, and a ton of organizations that use Knights, or even Golden Knights,” Craft said. “To say that one specific entity owns the rights to the name isn’t likely.”

She said the biggest hurdle for the Army is the vast difference between the teams.

“We’re talking about a hockey team versus a parachute team,” Craft said. “Because the sports themselves are so different, I just don’t see how fans would get confused. Typically sports fans are avid fans that know a lot about their team and there’s almost no way for the two to be confused.”

In trademark law, there are two main claims — Infringement (which claims there can be confusion between the two) and dilution (which claims it tarnishes the brand).

One of the Army’s biggest points in its opposition claim are quotes from Golden Knights’ owner Bill Foley and General Manager George McPhee saying the team was designed based on Army athletics.

“Bill Foley is a West Point guy, sort of using those colors,” McPhee said in a Washington Post story cited in the opposition. “You know his history at West Point. You know about the classmates he had that he lost serving this country. So, those colors mean a lot to us, and will mean a lot to our players. And we’re really proud of the logo. It’s clean, it’s symmetrical, it’s kind of bold, and again it stands for something.”

But according to Craft, intent is only a factor once the Army proves infringement or dilution, which is unlikely.

“You still have to show that there’s a likelihood of confusing the two,” she said. “Now if they do find confusion, then the intent is going to be pretty damning with quotes like that.”

Craft said she would guess Foley and the Vegas Golden Knights settle with the Army outside of court, but if the Army does go through with the opposition, it will likely lose. Even if they’re successful, the hockey team still doesn’t have to change its name. It can simply proceed using it without a trademark.

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