Tag Archives: trademark

Texas A&M is Horrible, Sues Local Bills Fan

2 Jul

logoIf you believe Texas A&M – a huge, well-regarded public university – Charles “Chuckie” Sonntag is the face of intellectual property theft in America. 

If you ask anyone around here, he’s an all-around nice guy.  He’s also a recent cancer survivor. And a double amputee. And confined to a wheelchair. And a recipient of Social Security Disability.  Chuckie Sonntag is not a deep-pocketed fellow. 

Chuckie Sonntag ran afoul of Texas A&M because he started a local movement to keep the Bills in Buffalo, and called it “12th Man Thunder”. Even a sports ignorant like I am knows that “12th man” refers to the fan in the stands, who cheers for his team.  It has already been changed to “Bills Fan Thunder” to appease an aggressive bully, Texas A&M. 

Perhaps Chuckie should have simply created a gender-neutral alternative and told Texas A&M to go to hell.  12th Player? 12th Position? A quick glance at the Wikipedia entry for “12th Man” shows that it’s used commonly by many teams. Texas A&M also holds the trademark on the term “12th Man”, and is very aggressive in enforcing it

Here’s Chuckie, whom Texas A&M just sued. I don’t do IP law, so I can’t opine on the legal issues in anything more than a rudimentary manner, but this whole thing seems outrageous and palpably unfair. From the trademark filing, the school owns “12th Man”.  

Maybe Sonntag should use “Twelfth Man”.

Sonntag isn’t using the mark for commercial reasons; he isn’t  making money on it. The term is common and, registration notwithstanding, not unique to Texas A&M. It would be wonderful to see someone challenge the validity of the underlying mark.  Seems unlikely to succeed, but I cannot tolerate big public universities bullying a grassroots fan effort like this. 

 The press release is below. 

“I can’t afford to pay an attorney but their lawsuit could cost me between $50,000 and $500,000,” Charles “Chuckie” Sonntag said. “That pretty much wipes out my $800 monthly Social Security check for the rest of my life.” Chuckie, who beat cancer last year, has suffered from polyostotic fibrous dysplasia – Albright’s Disease – since childhood and lost his left arm 20 years ago. In March, doctor’s
amputated his left leg.

Recovering In his hospital bed, Chuckie and his close friends decided to do something to stop the NFL Bills from leaving Buffalo – and “12thManThunder.com” was born. Established only two months ago, the idea took off and today is 10,000 Bills fans strong and growing. The group’s efforts have given a voice to loyal Bills fans at a time when their team may be moved to another city. Even local businesses have rallied around the group to donate 10 Bills season tickets for the city’s at-risk youth.

“My experience has proven two things: a handicapped person can accomplish just about anything – and Texas A&M will sue just about anybody,” Chuckie said.

On May 27th the University ordered its high-powered attorneys to demand Chuckie cease using the term “12th Man,” asserting a trademark they won in 1989 for the widely-used phrase meaning “fan support”. 

Many high schools in the United States incorporate 12th Man language into their booster clubs, including the Altaloma Braves, Dana Hills Dolphins, Seneca Golden Eagles, Washington Panthers, Richwood Knights, Diamond Bar Brahmas, Fairfield Falcons, and Brentwood Bruins.

Legally, Texas A&M could have moved on any of these groups or dozens more. Instead, on Monday, the University filed suit against a double amputee cancer survivor 1,500 miles away from College Station.

By filing suit, the University exposes Chuckie to automatic fines and fees – even though he expressed a willingness to cooperate. At one point, they gave him 24 hours to hand over all Internet domain names he bought, the T-shirts he printed and many other items. With the help of friends, he changed the name of his group to “BillsFanThunder.com” and stopped infringing on the trademark as fast as he could.

“How am I supposed to comply with their demands so quickly? I can’t even type that fast – I only have one hand,” Chuckie said.

Chuckie Sonntag is well known in Buffalo – for decades he has parked cars on the lawn of the small home he inherited next to the Buffalo Bills stadium. Unable to work, he devotes his time to helping two area non-profit organizations. He was honored this past weekend for surviving his bout with cancer during festivities at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo.

Wendt Foundation: Bullying WNY Entrepreneurs?

3 Dec

If you’ve been reading WNYMedia.net for a while, you’ll recall that two years ago, I wrote a relatively benign post wondering why Buffalo’s Wendt Foundation was funding anti-casino litigation rather than spending $2 million on funding artistic endeavors in Buffalo – which is its stated mission.  In response, then-Artvoice-columnist, casino opponent, and UB Professor Bruce Jackson accused me of being part of some nefarious local media cabal out to “swiftboat” the Wendt Foundation.

Always game for a good internet fight, WNYMedia.net looked further into the Wendt Foundation, which was (and probably still is) instrumental in funding any and all anti-casino litigation affecting Western New York, had significant multi-year holdings in Harrah’s, a casino operator.  We also disclosed for Bruce that his kids were among the lawyers representing the anti-casino group.

In the wake of these revelations, we tried to penetrate – and expose – the byzantine way in which this financing went from the foundation to the lawyers involved.  We couldn’t, however, because the money was all filtered through the Network for Religious Communities.  Faith-based non-profits such as the NRC are not required to disclose where they get their money, nor how they spend it.  It’s a perfect vessel through which transparency goes to die.

Despite numerous requests, no one from any of the myriad anti-Casino groups agreed to let us see where the money for its lawsuits came from, nor where it went. No one from the NRC ever responded to similar inquiries, and the whole thing ultimately got the Donn Esmonde, “hey let’s ignore all of this – these are my friends” treatment.  The facts are laid out below, and specific questions remain, such as:

  • The Wendt Foundation has paid about $2 million to fund the legal battle, and this is available at its IRS 990 disclosure;
  • The Wendt Foundation paid the money to the Network for Religious Communities, which as a faith-based organization does not have to disclose to the public where it spends its money;
  • The Citizens for a Better Buffalo, the membership of which includes all three Wendt trustees, is not a party to the pending lawsuit, but has been mentioned as being a recipient of Wendt Foundation funds via the Network for Religious Communities in furtherance of the lawsuit (to which it isn’t a party). The CBB is a non-profit corporation that does not have IRS tax-exempt status; and
  • The $2 million-ish has gone through at least one or two organizations before then being paid out to various and sundry lawyers, but no one knows exactly who and how much.

Why am I bringing this up?

You may recall Michael Caputo – political dirty trickster, the Robin to Roger Stone’s Batman – the guy who ran Carl Paladino’s campaign for governor.  During that campaign, I Googled him and came upon this item.  Evidently, Caputo had decided to move back to WNY even before Carl hired him for his recent gubernatorial run, and he and his wife intend to open a tea shop in East Aurora. They intend to name it the “Roycroft Tea Company”.

That is to say, they intended to do so, until the Wendt Foundation got involved.  In an April post at his personal blog, Caputo writes,

Maryna and I have been working for months to build a small business here in East Aurora – the Roycroft Tea Company – in a building on the historic Roycroft Campus. Our goal: to bring high-quality organic loose-leaf teas to Western New York, then open more stores outside the area.

We traveled to India and looked over some of the finest tea plantations in the world, searching for top notch teas. We’ve visited some of the nation’s finest tea rooms to investigate the business. Now Maryna is nearly done selecting 24 teas we will offer “From Farm to Family.”

Now we are ready to open!

Not so fast. A local group that claims to be a non-profit has decided to oppose our business idea. Never mind that the Roycroft is a part of history. Never mind that there are businesses across the United States that use the name. Never mind that we will employ at least ten local people.

The Wendt Foundation (no Web site – make you suspicious too?) says they own the rights to the name “Roycroft” just because they bought one of the buildings on the historical campus.

We have vowed to fight these bullies to the death

Evidently, the Wendt Foundation claims ownership to the rights and use of the word “Roycroft” because it owns and runs the inn that goes by that name. Yet both the Roycroft Inn and the Caputos’ tea company are sited on what is called the “Roycroft Campus”.

Michael Caputo seemed confident the legal process would result in a favorable ruling for Roycroft Tea: “I’ve been involved in patent and trademark litigation in the past. I was a plaintiff in MercExchange v. Ebay, which lasted 77 months, so I’m quite familiar with that type of litigation.We’ve done our homework. You can’t buy history. It’s been proven over and over again.”

The Wendt Foundation’s lawyer claims that people will be confused over whether they’re going to the big hotel or the little tea place in the town that is synonymous with Fisher-Price and Roycrofters.

The word “Roycroft” was chosen by Elbert Hubbard to describe his arts-and-crafts movement because it was the last name of a pair of London bookbinders in the 17th century, and because it means “king’s craft”, evoking the guilds of yore.

I don’t see any reason why it would be unreasonable for an East Aurora-based business located on the Roycroft Campus to use the “Roycroft” name, provided the wares being sold are made skillfully with craftsmanship, rather than imported teabags in a box.  I may not agree with Caputo’s politics, but I even more strenuously dislike some uber-wealthy local foundation bullying a small-business local entrepreneur.  I don’t think the Wendt people realized whom they were up against.

More on this later.  Stay tuned.