Thursday, May 19, 2011

Whatever You Do, Don't Say "Habs"

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.


Anonymous said...

Very good read.

Jessica and Stephan said...

Just absolutely ridiculous. I too would like to know when did they copyright "Habs"?!!

DB said...

If the NHL and the Habs (I hope they don't sue me) continue with this silliness then I suggest the following:

1) Bloggers and the media stop referring to the arenas by their corporate names. Come up with new nicknames that reflect poorly on the sponsor or the team (eg - The Overpriced Beer/Phone Centre or the David Fischer Centre)) or honour a former star (eg - The Richard Centre)

2) Stop calling the team the Habs or Canadiens in anything you write (want to make sure you don't violate any copyrights). Instead call them the Montreal Hockey Team.

3) Start a campaign for fans to buy and then return Habs merchandise for a full refund.

4) Ask former stars like Richard, Beliveau or Lafleur to speak out about this practice.

5) Copyright the names of all of the penalties and then send the NHL a cease and desist letter.

6) Legally change your name to Habs.

7) Check if there is a trademark for the name Montreal Forum. If not trademark it and tell the Habs they can no longer use it.

8) Start a chapter of the Goldwater Institute in Quebec City, Edmonton, Winnipeg or any other city that is talking about using government money to fund arenas or teams.

NailaJ said...

Excellent post! While I do understand the need to monitor copyright infringement and people using your brand to make their own money, I think one needs to be careful as to how much policing needs to be done. Sure, people live-tweeting a game play-by-play could potentially be infringing the rights of rights-holding broadcasters. But to say that discussing a game while in progress on Twitter is "broadcasting" it might be going a bit too far.

It's a fine line and they don't seem to be afraid of walking it, no matter the consequences.

Anonymous said...

This reeks of the RIAA suing 80 year old ladies or small children over music sharing, more than often alleged. Ridiculous. Why this one individual and why in Montreal? You can't tell me this doesn't exist else where.

Anonymous said...

Dear J.T.,

My advice, if you're ever taken to court, is to make sure you have a jury trial. I don't think there are 12 of your peers in the whole of the country that would convict you. This is corporate bullying and should be stopped, plain and simple.

Anonymous said...

Very nice blog, I wonder what could we do to show our support to the gentlmen is question.


Howard said...

I have a store totally unrelated to hockey and like the unfortunate restaurant owner I did a display for the playoffs in support of the team. The display reflected the history of the team, it's players, cup wins, kind of like a mini hall of fame crowned with a Roy jersey. I'm glad that I'm off the beaten track or else I may have suffered the same fate. GO REDACTED GO!!!

Anonymous said...

That is what happens when a business is taken over by lawyers. Sell any shares you have and get out quick. On paper everything will look promising but the bank account will disappear.

Anyway I think you are safe. After all the H does not stand for Habs. Even a lawyer will have difficulty figuring that out.

Raj said...

As always, well-written post, Leigh Anne. I think you'll be Ok, it's the blogs that attract a lot of commercial traffic that might come under scrutiny. A few weeks ago, Fourhabfans got a letter from the Canadiens' general counsel -- or so Fourhabsfans said -- requesting they cease and desist from using "Habs" in their name. But they haven't, and nothing's happened. THAT particular fight, had there been one, I would have liked to see -- I'm quite sure Fourhabsfans would have defended themselves well and with wit and humor to boot. Maybe the Canadiens decided to leave well enough alone? Anyway, I'm sure even the most obtuse lawyer could see no nefarious plot could exist on your site to defraud the Canadiens out of some shekels.

Jesse said...

Hi Jt,
This happened in Vancouver recently as well, where a car dealership was forced to take down his sign that said Go Canucks Go in his window with a Canucks logo. Here's the link to the story.

Number31 said...

Sorry, I know it's popular to piss on the NHL for this but they're in the right here. No matter how much a fan the business owners are, they put up a giant banner of a dude in a Habs uniform slicing shawarma. It draws attention, and is using the trademark image of the Habs to pretty much attract business even if they claim they're just innocently showing their love for the team. Should have gotten a warning first though.

Most of the places I see have official little flags on their back walls by their kitchens to show their love, usually coupled with signed photos of players chowing down on their wares. That's a little different from a giant homemade banner... The Gazette thing was a bit silly though, considering they actually cover the team.

Hey, I've heard of Major Junior teams going after fan bloggers (for the use of names or pictures) of their respected teams even though it's bloody Major Junior and these people are pretty much season ticket holders... The key is to keep a low profile.

Anonymous said...


Have to agree totally .Though I wonder why you waited this long to comment about Habs It is absurd to trademark a name (like Habs) that was coined by fans. It particularly raised my ire when they forced the Gazette to change the name.It was quite galling and seemed to come only after traffic numbers had grown exponentially. I think they should have challenged them in court.