I'm waiting for the axe to fall, and I've got my legal defence all planned. The Habs are on the warpath, and have been for the last few months, stomping foes who dare defy their copyright.
So far, we know about the former Habs Inside/Out website being forced to change its name to "Hockey" Inside/Out. Then there's the schwarma restaurant in Montreal that got slapped with an $89-thousand fine for displaying a cartoon picture of the owner in a Canadiens' sweater on the outside of the building, with a "Go Habs Go" caption underneath. He got a warning letter from the league about copyright infringement and so he painted over the logo on the sweater. That wasn't enough for the Canadiens or the NHL, though, so they levied the fine, which totals a thousand dollars for each day the picture (now removed) was displayed.
It's an interesting tactic for a league dependent on the goodwill of fans to keep it afloat. On one hand, it's understandable that the NHL, which enters into sponsorship agreements with businesses and service providers for lots of dough, would want to protect the integrity of those agreements. After all, if Tim Horton's pays a hefty sum to be the official restaurant of the NHL, it's not really fair for other restaurants to give the impression through their advertising that they're affiliated in some way with the NHL or the Canadiens without paying.
On the other hand, the arbitrary nature of the fine in the restaurant's case raises an interesting question: When does displaying a slogan or team colours cross the line between showing fan pride and breaking copyright? According to the NHL, it seems to be when the person or business using the word "Habs" in its name or showing the colours on its restaurant wall has the potential to make money from the exercise, of which the league doesn't get a cut.
The NHL and the Canadiens are about business, of course, and they have to protect their bottom line. The problem is, they're a lot more than just a business. If Bell Canada or Via Rail sees another company using their logos or implying a relationship with their colours or slogans, there's an obvious copyright infringement. It's not likely the guy with the schwarma place in downtown Montreal would display a picture of himself riding a Via train or using a Bell phone to show his love of those companies.
The Canadiens inspire love, devotion and a fervent desire to show support for the team. They're an integral part of the history of Montreal and Quebec, and the fans who support them feel a sense of ownership toward them. After all, without the fans' adoration and the dollars that love inspires them to spend on tickets and merchandise, there would be no team. People need trains and phones. It can be argued they don't actually need professional hockey. It's particularly galling that the "Go Habs Go" slogan the NHL is fining people for using improperly was actually invented by the fans, who've been passionately shouting encouragement to their team for a hundred years.
It's a risky thing for the league to take that devotion and hang a cynic's label on it. The restaurant owner in question claims he was only showing support for his team. The NHL says he was illegally using the Habs logo, colours and slogan in a cold-hearted attempt to attract more business. In the big picture, though, what did the league gain by fining him? The move has made a great many hockey fans, who themselves wear the sweater, display banners at work and scream "Go Habs Go" at every opportunity, angry. They feel one of their own has been singled out and punished by the corporate machine of the league. The move seems a tad arrogant; a "there are always other fans to replace you if you don't like it" approach. Fans wonder where the crack-down will end.
In these cases, it's not as though the restaurant owner was claiming to be associated with the Habs or promising anything he shouldn't have. Similarly, it's not like the Montreal Gazette's hockey-themed web page was claiming to be anything more than a site where fans could gather to talk about hockey and get the latest news. In the latter case, especially, the cease-and-desist order was against a company offering a service appreciated by the fans who pay the team's bills.
The NHL and the Canadiens are legally entitled to take a hard line on enforcing their copyrights. (Although when the hell did they copyright "Habs" anyway? Seems to me the journalists who coined it and the fans who adopted it should have had some rights there.) Their choosing to exercise those rights in the way they have is really bad PR and, many fans feel, unnecessary. The Canadiens didn't lose anything in either of those cases, and in the case of the Gazette, they may actually have gained some new fans.
So, I'm waiting for the hammer to come down on my poor blog now. My legal defence is that I'm saying the "H" does NOT stand for Habs. If, one day, I get a letter from the Canadiens lawyers, I hope it stands up in court.