Even during subpar seasons, arguments could be made that the Red Sox own a disproportionate chunk of Boston’s psyche.
But recent legal filings saw Major League Baseball attempting to lay claim to the city in a curious way.
Specifically, trademarking the word “Boston.”
The move by the league, on behalf of the club, would have given them rights to the word for clothing, from shirts to bibs to underwear, baseball games, athletic events, concerts, fan clubs, and sports camps.
But crucially, the two applications, if granted, could have opened the door to the Red Sox having the ability to assert a legal claim to merchandise that simply bears the name “Boston,” but is not written in the classic style or font of the club, experts say.
“Which is a serious overreach,” Rebecca Curtin, a Suffolk University law professor, said on Friday.
Perhaps predictably, the online backlash to the attempt to trademark the name of the state’s capital city was swift, as fans and residents railed against what for some felt like an attempted corporatization of another corner of everyday life.
Before noon on Friday, the team released a statement saying that Major League Baseball had agreed, at the request of the Red Sox, to drop the application to the US Patent and Trademark Office.
In a statement, the team’s principal owner John Henry, who also owns The Boston Globe, said MLB “initiated, oversaw, and directed a trademark application on behalf of three of its clubs, including the Boston Red Sox. Major League Baseball — not the Boston Red Sox — initiated this filing.”
On Friday, Henry continued, “at our request, MLB has agreed to withdraw the application.”
The league’s intent wasn’t to take possession of the city’s name, he said.
“MLB’s intent was to protect these clubs’ use of their city name in connection with professional baseball services and apparel, not an attempt to own the city name or prevent others from using the city name,” Henry said.
The league did not respond to a request for further comment Friday.
Henry, who is the principal owner of Fenway Sports Group, which owns Liverpool Football Club, previously saw a similar development unfold across the Atlantic Ocean.
In 2019, The Guardian reported that the club’s attempt to trademark the word “Liverpool” was rejected by government authorities because of the “geographical significance” of the city. At the time, the club said that move was purely “in the context of football products and services” and to stop people benefiting from the sale of what they described as “inauthentic products,” the paper reported.
Stacey Dogan, a law professor at Boston University, called the trademark applications at issue “ridiculous.”
“Teams and institutions and universities and cities — all sorts of entities are trying to commercialize the value of their organization in some way,” she said. “They’re always eager to grab as much as they can get and to make claims that might give them a little bit more territory, but this one is really absurd.”
It’s one thing to claim rights to a stylized version of “Boston” as it appears on the Red Sox uniform, but “this application is so broad it [could] prevent some high school from using it on their uniforms,” she said.
“It’s just a property grab,” Dogan said.
Alexandra Roberts, a law professor at Northeastern University, said she laughed when she heard about the application, which she described as “kind of ludicrous.”
If the league proceeded with its application, she said, their chance of successfully obtaining the trademarks were low since Boston is already a word “in really broad use.”
Other entities, including other professional sports teams — such as the Bruins, Celtics, and Pride — already use the name of New England’s largest city, she pointed out.
“The USPTO is going to say, ‘You’re not going put forth something that’s capable of being a trademark and you’re not showing that you’re using it in a trademark way,’” she said before Henry announced the league agreed to drop its application.
“This is like if Dunkin’ Donuts tried to trademark, ‘Caution: hot liquid,’” she said. “No. Everyone needs to use that phrase.”
Rachael Dickson, a Suffolk University law professor, was equally bemused by the applications, saying “the great thing is it’s already been shouted down and they’re backing off it.”
She questioned the impetus behind the move, which, she noted, at the very least was a public relations mess.
“It’s a whole city, lots of people live there, lots of people play baseball there who don’t have anything to do with the Red Sox,” she said.
She noted that the Sox had moved to trademark a host of things in decades past, from hot dogs to various types of clothing to balloons. The trademark system is supposed to reduce consumer confusion, and Dickson said, “I just don’t think anyone would realistically see Boston in any sort of font on a shirt and automatically think it’s coming from the Boston Red Sox.”
“Boston’s kind of a big deal on its own apart from the Red Sox,” she said. “I wouldn’t cross Boston in my trademark applications, that seems like a poor life choice.”