Tom Brady: The Greatest of All Time (at Trademarks)?

In March 2022, the greatest NFL quarterback of all time, Tom Brady, announced the end of his short-lived “retirement” and would be pursuing new business endeavors. Almost immediately, I saw ads on my Instagram feed for his new athletic clothing line called “BRADY”. What intrigued me the most was not the price of over $100 for a sweatshirt, but the superscript “TM” in the brand’s logo. As a student interested in intellectual property, this made me curious – what else has Brady trademarked?

Photo by Alexander Jonesi, licensed under Creative Commons

What is a trademark?

Before we dive into some of Brady’s most interesting trademarks, here’s a basic intro to the world of trademarks. Trademarks are things like words, catchphrases, and logos that identify and distinguish a person or entity’s goods or services.  They establish ownership rights only to how the word or phrase is used with that class of goods or services. However, words that are generic for a class of goods or services (such as the word “football” for the brown balls in a curved shape with white seams), cannot be valid trademarks because they cannot actually identify a single source.

Other types of trademarks include trade dress and service marks. Trade dress is the distinctive “look and feel” of product packaging or design. Service marks are the brand name or logo that helps identify that service. So, there are probably more things that qualify as trademarks than you might think!

But wait, what does “TM” mean? Is it the same thing as ®?

You can tell something is trademarked if you see “TM” or “SM”, which usually indicates an unregistered trademark. If there is an ® next to the symbol or words, that means the trademark is registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

One fun fact about trademarks is that you don’t actually need to register with the USPTO in order to own your trademark. In fact, any time you use your trademark in commerce with your goods or services, you own it! But those ownership rights tend to be limited to the geographic area in which you are using the mark. So, if you want strong trademark rights, you should apply for federal registration which is especially great for online sales, which seems to be the idea the Brady Brand has for its clothing.

Photo by Marina Noordegraaf, licensed under Creative Commons

So why would I even want a trademark?

The main benefit of owning a trademark is that it prevents others from using a similar mark if doing so would likely be confusing to consumers. If there is confusion, or if someone is using your mark in commerce without permission, you can file a lawsuit for trademark infringement.  If you want to sue someone for trademark infringement, you have to show that you have a valid mark and that the infringing mark causes consumer confusion.

One easy way to prove your mark is valid is actually if it is registered with the USPTO, which means it is presumed valid. To do this, you will have to file an application with the USPTO. Next, an examiner will decide whether the mark is valid or they may issue an office action explaining why it is invalid which may state some required changes to your application. If your application is approved, it is then published for opposition. If no one opposes your mark for 30 days after publication, it will be added to the principal register. Only then do you get nationwide rights to stop others from using that mark or something that would be confusingly similar.

Thus, registration is especially helpful for popular brands, perhaps ones run by future NFL Hall of Famers. As it turns out, Tom Brady has indeed taken advantage of the benefits of registration a few times. He’s actually applied for over 100 trademarks ranging from logos, catchphrases, stylizations of his signature, and beyond to capitalize on his infamous name. Here’s a few notable examples…

The Classic “TB12”

Photo by Cian Leach, licensed by Unsplash

What was once just a nickname has now turned into an intellectual property matter for the star quarterback. An early iteration of a “TB12” trademark was registered in June 2009. This mark is listed in the Trademark Electronic Search System (TESS), as words, letters, or numbers in stylized form, and is used on clothing, namely hats and shirts. In this mark, the letters “T” and “B” are intertwined with the number “12”. The trademark is officially owned by TEB Capital Management, Inc., Brady’s official management company.

The mark, however, does not claim color, which seemed odd to me since I usually see “TB12” in a red font. You can actually receive trade dress protection for a color if it has “secondary meaning”. This means that the shade of red for TB12 would have to be associated with that brand as the single commercial source in the minds of consumers to be valid trade dress.

New Team, New Brand?

As a bitter New England Patriots fan, it pained me to see Brady announce in March 2020 that he was leaving after 20 seasons to play for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers.  What’s worse? He took advantage of a new branding opportunity and filed applications for trademarks such as “TOMPA BAY” and “TAMPA BRADY” less than a month after his announcement. These applications were specific to clothing such as shirts, pants, sweaters, jerseys, headwear, and footwear as standard character marks. The marks were added to the principal register in 2021 and unfortunately are still valid to this day.

Just because they’re on the principal register though, doesn’t mean they’ll live forever. A trademark can die if it is abandoned by a lack of use in commerce. It can also be cancelled after an opponent with a similar mark challenges its validity. Finally, the trademark can die if it becomes generic over time (like the word “escalator” which used to be owned by Otis Elevator Company).

It seems like TOMPA BAY and TAMPA BRADY are pretty unique so it may be difficult to show that they are generic terms. But I could see them being could be abandoned (just like he abandoned New England) if he fails to use them for years after his career ends. That is, if it ever ends.

Photo by All-Pro Reels, licensed under Creative Commons.

Brady Bitcoin?

Speculation about the end of Brady’s career made headlines once again as he failed to show up for 11 days of Tampa Bay’s training camp. So, what could be next for Brady if his playing career ended? Based on his recently filed trademark applications, it seems like he may have taken an interest in cryptocurrency.

On March 7, 2022, Brady’s company filed 4 applications to register his signature as a trademark in association with non-fungible tokens (NFTs), digital token services, online marketplaces for digital collectibles, and a website for trading cryptocurrency and NFTs. Official registration on the principal register is still pending.

Although Brady is still playing football, it’s clear that the NFTs have already started to come into commercial use. In early 2022, Brady co-founded Autograph, an NFT agency mainly for famous athletes. Autograph provides fans the ability to purchase digital collectibles, such as Tom Brady NFTs for around $12 each. It also hosts events like Discord chats where fans can “hang out” with their sports idols via digital discussion.

Image by Quantitatives, licensed by Unsplash

So, is there anything Brady hasn’t trademarked?

While there is a great variety of things Brady has registered or attempted to trademark, one thing he has not made a claim for is his nickname, “THE GOAT” (or, greatest of all time). I suspect this may be because whether it applies is still up for debate.

Regardless of whether or not Brady eventually retires from football, because he may in fact be invincible, it’s clear his trademarks are giving him an exclusive path to use his name for a variety of endeavors.

Maddie Domenichella
Associate Blogger
Loyola University Chicago School of Law, J.D. 2024