On January 17, 2022, Milwaukee Bucks forward Giannis Antetokounmpo filed a trademark suit in the United States District Court Southern District of New York. The defendant is Leaf Trading Cards LLC. The Giannis Antetokounmpo vs Leaf lawsuit could have serious implications for the future of sports card licensing. Therefore, it was worth breaking down in detail.
I almost feel silly writing this. But Giannis Antetokounmpo is one of the best players in the NBA. Though only 27, the forward has already won an NBA title and two MVP awards (2019 and 2020).
The NBA has also chosen the 5-time All-Star as one of the best 75 players in its history. He averages 20.9 points per game, with 4.5 assists and 9.1 rebounds for his career, with significantly higher numbers in recent years.
Giannis is often known by his catchy nickname, the “Greek Freak.” Why? As mentioned, the player is a Greek national and was born in Athens. In addition, his incredible ballhandling and skillful footwork for a player of his considerable size led observers to label Giannis a freak. So in sum, he is a “Greek Freak.” Simple!
Americans find it very difficult to spell or pronounce his name. So the nickname was created and caught on so everyone could avoid engaging with the long name.
Giannis does not remember who came up with the nickname. He told ESPN, “I don’t remember the first time I heard about it — it was probably my rookie year — but I really don’t know who came up with it. I just went on the court one day, and I had like a crazy dunk or a crazy block, and after that, everyone started calling me the Greek Freak. So, it stuck by me, I love it, and it’s a cool nickname.”
Leaf is known for its unlicensed card releases. However, it has generally managed to avoid lawsuits.
But the card company made the mistake of using his “Greek Freak” nickname. Of course, many nicknames are just fun monikers. However, some athletes trademark these phrases and consider them an integral part of their brand. Giannis falls firmly in the latter camp and has aggressively defended his exclusive right to use the “Greek Freak” nickname.
Antetokounmpo and his lawyers believe that the star has “been using his name and brand in commerce in the United States and worldwide; products bearing his name, likeness, and trademarks are distributed at markets throughout the United States.” In addition, Giannis has “expended substantial time, money and resources, to successfully develop, promote and advertise the Antetokounmpo rights around the world, such that they are now a source-identifying brand.” The plaintiffs’ lawyers claim that these rights are worth a considerable amount of money due to “his efforts, his impressive professional abilities, and widespread popularity.”
Giannis claims that this use causes him harm on both the professional and personal levels. In addition, according to the plaintiffs filing, the unauthorized use of the “Greek Freak” moniker harms his “rights of privacy.”
Giannis and his lawyers claim that a previous cease and desist letter issued to Leaf on August 16, 2021, provided ample warning to the company to stop its copyright infringing actions. However, according to the defendants’ lawyers, Leaf “failed to cooperate with Antetokounmpo’s reasonable requests, which were meant to ensure that the infringement had ceased and that Antetokounmpo would be adequately compensated for the damages. He incurred.”
What were these requests? As you can see, the suit does not list them specifically.
However, it does include a copy of the cease-and-desist letter itself. Giannis asked that Leaf “promptly removes all the products and merchandise which infringe upon our clients’ exclusive rights from your inventory, website, and social media pages.”
However, the demand does not stop there. The lawyers threaten a lawsuit unless Leaf produces “a full accounting of every merchandise sold by you that utilizes or incorporates Antetokounmpo’s mark, as well as the profits derived…which rightfully belong to our client.”
According to the suit, Leaf responded to the cease-and-desist letter. Indeed, it appears that negotiations followed soon after. However, they clearly broke down and necessitated further legal action from the Plaintiff’s perspective.
The suit gives us some idea of why talks broke down. The cease-and-desist lawyer seems to have included a request for “an accounting of all profits generated.” The demand for profit info was a stumbling block in negotiations between the two. Antetokounmpo’s lawyers complained that following this request, “Defendant failed to cooperate with Plaintiff in good faith to reach an agreement.”
The suit also claims that “Leaf failed to provide any evidence showing the cessation of the infringing activities.”
The case is complicated, and the suit filed is 21 pages long. The basketball star is suing Leaf for a variety of alleged claims. These include:
The suit does not lay out what elements of the Giannis brand Leaf is using unlawfully, aside from the “Greek Freak” nickname. However, they may be denying the company to use the superstar’s image altogether.
Giannis and the Leaf card company have a relationship going back years to 2013. An agreement between the two signed that year holds the basis of the production of Giannis cards with the moniker “Greek Freak.” Therefore, the agreement deserves some specific attention.
The two-time MVP had a previous contractual relationship with Leaf. A contract signed in May 2013 allowed the trading card company to use trademarks associated with Antetokounmpo for 12 months.
The agreement allowed Leaf to do the following:
The agreement was relatively modest in terms of financial remuneration. Giannis was obligated to sign 1,000 cards and receive $8,000 in return. The contract allowed for further autos at the same rate of $8 per autographed card,
Among other things, the agreement permitted Leaf to use the “Greek Freak” name on their cards. However, the contract was not renewed and expired the following year. Nonetheless, the Plaintiff claims that Leaf “without Antetokounmpo’s knowledge, consent or remuneration, Leaf continued selling items bearing the GREEK FREAK mark and Antetokounmpo’s name, nickname, picture, and likeness.
Giannis signed the deal in 2013, a month before he stood in the 2013 NBA Draft. At the time, the forward was an up-and-coming prospect. However, he was not the massive superstar he is today. Indeed, he was wildly undervalued in the draft. None of those selected ahead of the 15th pick are stars, and some have really faded. Not least among them first, overall pick Anthony Bennett.
Antetokounmpo and his lawyers claim that Leaf has been continuing to act in violation of the trademark rights of the Plaintiff since May 2014 “without Plaintiff’s authorization or consent.” Nonetheless, they claim in the suit that Giannis learned of this on or around August 16, 2021.
Therefore, the Giannis who signed the deal with Leaf were not as savvy or important as the player is nowadays. Consequently, it is not surprising that the forward allowed the agreement to lapse.
Considering the massive changes in Giannis’ profile, it is cynical of Leaf to act as if nothing had changed. The suit complains that “products sold by Defendant bearing the GREEK FREAK mark and Antetokounmpo’s name, nickname, picture and likeness were sold to confuse and mislead consumers into believing they are purchasing products associated with or endorsed by Giannis Antetokounmpo, one of the NBA’s most successful players.”
However, it is unclear if it is illegal.
The case involving Leaf is by no means exceptional. Antetokounmpo and his lawyers have proved to be aggressively litigious towards anyone using the “Greek Freak” phrase. According to some reports, close to 50 lawsuits seek damages over unlicensed use of the nickname.
A recent lawsuit by Giannis targeted an Etsy shop that sold items brandishing the slogan “Greek Freak” and “Greek Fr34k.” The items for sale involved an array of apparel, mugs, and even drug-related paraphernalia. Unfortunately, the two defendants, Sherrie Richardson-Miller and Jordan Reyes did not appear in court, a decision that certainly did not help further their chances in court.
In December 2021, the court ruled in favor of the Plaintiff. However, they did not award Antetokounmpo damages. Instead, they charged the defendants for all legal fees incurred by the Plaintiff. However, due to the circumstances, the magistrate recommended minimizing the defendants’ liability to $11,300.
There were some similarities between the cases. In both affairs, the representation for the Plaintiff sent cease and desist letters to the defendants before suing. And more importantly, the use of the trademark was not sanctioned.
However, some critical differences may influence the outcome.
As is the case in many suits, many of the counts levied against Leaf are unlikely to stand and are just there for show. In particular, the Tortious interference with prospective economic advantage appears groundless. They require proof of actual harm to income, and Giannis and his lawyers have provided none and are unlikely to be able to do so in the future.
The basketball player currently has two patent applications pending. One is intended to cover the use of the “Greek Freak” moniker. One is for “entertainment services,” particularly in the field of video games and online gambling. That petition was filed in May 2020. A second covers “goods and services” in many areas. These include but are not limited to:
This application was filed on December 19, 2018. However, it did not include sports cards among the many items.
That does not prevent Antetokounmpo from suing. However, it means that he will have difficulty collecting certain damages.
Another problem with the suit is the location of the filing. Giannis plays in Milwaukee but lives in Chicago, Illinois. Meanwhile, Leaf is headquartered in Carrollton, Texas. Yet, Giannis and his lawyers filed in New York under the claim that “Defendant’s actions caused injury to Plaintiff in New York” and because Antetokounmpo “conducts substantial business in New York.”
However, it honestly seems that Giannis is seeking jurisdiction in New York because his lawyers believe it treats trademark disputes favorably from the Plaintiff’s perspective. However, courts are not always sympathetic to this practice known as ‘forum shopping.’
If the case persists, we can expect Leaf to shift the venue elsewhere. Considering the tenuous connection to New York state, they have a good chance of carrying a motion to relocate.
On its face, this is a case with the narrow application. However, the legal battle between Leaf and Giannis may set the limits for the unlicensed usage of players’ likeness everywhere. If the court determines that Leaf did not have the right to use the images or name of the player, it could challenge the existence of unlicensed products. Meanwhile, if Giannis loses the suit, it could encourage producers like Leaf and SAGE in the future. Panini, in particular, will be interested in the results as it crafts a strategy for the post-Fanatics card world.
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