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Stolen Bases: A Teenager Argues That a Big-League Ballclub Stole His Work 

Wednesday, Jan 21 2015
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The Oakland Athletics this offseason have seemingly applied their statistics-driven, Moneyball approach to systematically alienating their fan base.

One erstwhile fan was particularly incensed, however. After what he describes as an unsatisfying back-and-forth with the team, 16-year-old Ryan Frigo mass-emailed a lamentation to members of the media claiming the Major League ballclub ripped off the "StOAKed" logo he's been selling on shirts and apparel for several years via his company, Stoaked.

Articles appeared. That helped: Frigo got a phone call from Ken Pries, a team vice president. Pries released a statement to the media revealing a paltry 126 Oakland A's "Stoaked" shirts were sold celebrating the team's abortive 2014 postseason run; shirt manufacturer Majestic did its due diligence on trademark protection; and "as a gesture of good will" no more shirts will be sold, and unsold shirts will be destroyed.

Pries tells SF Weekly the A's won't use this logo again. And he'd like to have a face-to-face chat with Frigo, because he seems like an interesting kid: "I'd like to meet him."

So, all's well. But not really: Half a dozen trademark attorneys told us that, legally, the A's were in the clear. Conceivably, the team could have overtly acknowledged it was appropriating established work from a smaller entity — in writing, even — and still been on solid legal ground.

The terrible publicity of being perceived as stealing from a child, however, is something separate and apart from any law.

"The law," explains University of Southern California professor Dan Klerman, "does not protect people who make up cool words." Trademark law is about consumer confusion. So, in order to prevail on a trademark claim, Frigo would have had to procure an attorney who would, in turn, procure a pollster who would then need to demonstrate that Oaklanders believed "Stoaked" A's shirts were actually connected to the small company run by a teenager.

Also, Major League Baseball employs Major League attorneys. That's what a Hayward company that produces tourist fleeces found out. In 2011, GoGo Sports sued the San Francisco Giants over its script "San Francisco" logo, which the team had never formally trademarked. A countersuit followed, and, last year, a federal district court sided with the Giants, plunking GoGo with a legal beanball.

In trademark law, especially, it's good to be the king. In the mid-1990s Congress expanded the scope of the law to include "dilution." This gives big companies (like professional sports franchises) a tool most 16-year-olds don't have; they can claim interlopers are "diluting" their established, famous marks.

There is some cold comfort for the little guy whose stuff is copied or stolen by the big guy: "You do get free publicity," says UC Hastings professor Ben Depoorter. "It could be the best thing that happens to you."

About The Author

Joe Eskenazi

Joe Eskenazi

Bio:
Joe Eskenazi was born in San Francisco, raised in the Bay Area, and attended U.C. Berkeley. He never left. "Your humble narrator" was a staff writer and columnist for SF Weekly from 2007 to 2015. He resides in the Excelsior with his wife, 4.3 miles from his birthplace and 5,474 from hers.

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