A tale of two cities – Washington and Bucharest – and two trademark battles

It’s big news when a storied sports franchise loses its identity. And that’s what’s happened with a prominent professional football team in its nation’s capital, a team with which you’re all doubtless familiar: No, not the Washington, D.C. NFL team, but Steaua (“Star”) Bucharest, the most successful football (or what a small minority of the world refers to as “soccer”) team in Romanian history.

Or should I refer to the team formerly known as “Steaua Bucharest”? More on that below.

You might have thought that I was talking about the Washington, D.C. NFL team with the controversial name. Not today. In fact, the team has just won an indirect victory at the FCC (and trust me, this year the team can use any victory it can get its hands on): the Media Bureau’s Audio Division has dismissed several petitions to deny the license renewals of stations that mentioned the team’s name on the air. The decision is relatively short and sweet and totally right on the money: however offensive the name may be to however many people, there is no basis in the FCC’s rules (or any other law, for that matter) to deny a station’s license because of its use of racial or ethnic epithets. Indeed, as my colleague Steve Lovelady pointed out when the petitions were first filed, the FCC itself has expressly taken that consideration off the table. So stations can continue to play “Hail to the Redskins” without fearing for their next renewal.

All is not so copacetic in Bucharest, however.

Surely you’re familiar with Steaua Bucharest’s résumé: founded in 1947; winners of 25 Romanian Liga 1 titles and 21 Romanian Cup titles; finished in 6th place or better more than 60 times; named as the favorite team of 60 percent of Romanians in a recent poll; beat Barcelona in 1986 to become the first Eastern European team to win the European Cup, the precursor to the current European Champions League (they returned to the final in 1989, only to lose to AC Milan).

The team was originally owned by the Romanian Ministry of Defense back in the Communist era. The Ministry relinquished ownership to private owners in 1998 after Communism took a dive, but somehow the Ministry retained ownership of the related intellectual property. (No, I’m no expert in Romanian law, so I can’t explain how that worked.) The Ministry allowed the team to continue to use the team’s primary identifiers: name, color scheme (red, blue and yellow, corresponding to the national colors), and emblem.

But sometime around 2004 there was a falling-out between the Ministry and its then owner, one George “Gigi” Becali – former shepherd, former member of the European Parliament, former member of the Romanian Parliament, present-day convict serving a three-year sentence for abuse of power. The Ministry declined to let the team under Mr. Becali use its historical name, colors and emblem, but Becali did so anyway. In 2011 the Ministry sued and, earlier this month, a Romanian court held for the Ministry. As a result, the team has no name: when it played in its home stadium after the verdict, the scoreboard identified the team merely as “Hosts”. The team also has no colors: the players have taken to wearing solid yellow uniforms that make them look like Laa Laa the Teletubby.

What does this have to do with Washington’s NFL club and its current trademark fight?  The cases are, of course, entirely different. As a result of ongoing trademark litigation (not having anything to do with the FCC), the Washington football team might lose its exclusive right to its name and certain formulations of its logo but, unlike Steaua Bucharest, it could still use that name and logo – although it would be unable to prevent anybody else from using the same name and logo. By contrast, in Romania the Ministry currently holds the exclusive rights to the Steaua marks, so it’s in a position to bar anybody, including, apparently, the team itself, from using those marks at all.

There are lessons to be learned here about the value of trademark rights. The failure to secure those rights – or to properly vet your use of a name, logo or other branding element before commencing that use – can have not only financial ramifications (as the Washington football team might one day suffer) but it could even go further into forcing an entire identity crisis and rebrand (as Steaua Bucharest is facing now).

Hail to the, um, Hosts!