A Terrible Towel Trademark Tale?

As the NFL season gets underway and the Pittsburgh Steelers set off in pursuit of a seventh Super Bowl title (Pittsburghers used to say “One for the thumb” and now, fans call the city “Sixburgh”; what slogan comes next?), the local press is searching for feel-good fan stories.  One feel-good fan story offers some questions for trademark cognoscenti.

Today’s Post-Gazette features a long story on the Terrible Towel, the internationally recognized symbol of Steelers Nation and sign of allegiance of Pittsburghers everywhere.  If you watch an NFL game featuring the Steelers, whether played in Pittsburgh or elsewhere, you will see thousands of Steelers fans in the stadium twirling yellow terrycloth towels painted with a black “terrible towel” logo, usually whenever something positive happens for the team, sometimes to help rally the team.  (You might also encounter twirling Terrible Towels in family rooms, dens, bars, restaurants, sidewalks, airplanes, shopping malls, the Himalayas, war zones, and symphony halls.)  That’s the Terrible Towel.  To Pittsburghers, the Terrible Towel is not only a signal of team allegiance; it’s become a symbol of the city itself, sort of like lobster rolls in Boston, styrofoam Statue of Liberty headgear in New York, and Rice-a-Roni in San Francisco.

The point of the Post-Gazette story is to remind Pittsburghers everywhere that there is a huge “awww” story here.  The Terrible Towel is a registered trademark.  Actually, there are now lots of TT marks, all of them featuring essentially identical logos, for different products.  Among the earlier registrations is No. 2123428 for a typed drawing, in connection with “towels.”  (The law firm that prosecuted the applications was Eckert Seamans, one of Pittsburgh’s largest and best known, and for many years one of its leading IP firms.)  About ten years ago, Myron Cope, the originator of the TT, assigned the mark to the Allegheny Valley School, a local residential facility serving the disabled.  Myron’s son Danny, who is severely disabled, lives at the AVS.  Royalties from the TT marks have generated millions of dollars for the school.  Each towel costs roughly $7 at retail, and it is something of a rule that Pittsburgh citizenship requires that each household own at least one of them.  My family owns several.

All together now:  Awww.

Here’s the trademark question:  Is the Terrible Towel mark invalid? Continue reading