The context: the AFL Championship and Cinderella Tasmania
The AFL (Australian Football League) is the only fully professional competition in Australian football and is something of an obsession for many in the country. Each year, 18 teams from five of Australia’s six states compete for a six-month season. For various reasons (from the small market to the heated divisions between North and South) Tasmania had never had its own representation in the top tournament.
At least until last week, when the AFL’s chief executive announced that the league’s 19th franchise would indeed be Tasmania, with the team expected (the conditional is a must here) to play its first games in 2028.
Taz, the Tasmanian Devil
It is a pity that the ‘home’ team risks finding itself without a name, without a logo and without a mascot: in short, without an identity. Why? All because of a dispute with Warner Bros. and, in particular, with… Looney Tunes, no less.
When one thinks of Tasmania, an island located off the southern coast of Australia, the infamous ‘Tasmanian Devil‘ immediately springs to mind: a small marsupial known mainly for its somewhat quarrelsome character and its high-pitched howls at night. A very curious mammal, similar to a small teddy bear but with a long tail, which inspired one of the best-known Looney Tunes characters: ‘Taz, the Tasmanian devil‘, indeed, who like a tornado destroys (or eats) everything. Created by Robert McKimson in the early 1950s and then passed somewhat under the radar, it made a comeback in the early 1990s with the animated sitcom Tazmania. Today, therefore, ‘Tasmanian Devil’ is a registered trademark owned by the American Warner Bros. Entertainment Inc. for various product categories, from clothing, toys, sports equipment and printed materials to fishing equipment and even beer.
The case: Tasmania Devils vs Warner Bros
This was the source of the impasse that created a ‘Mexican stalemate’ situation, in which the protagonists are the AFL League, the Tasmania Devils and Warner Bros.
The story appeared recently and immediately generated much interest in the local and international press: Warner Bros., who owns the rights to the Taz character, has reportedly threatened a no-holds-barred legal battle against the use of the name ‘Tasmanian Devils’ by the island football team.
Inevitable was the ensuing carousel of headlines, even sensational ones, in the media, which came to inflame the population and, consequently, also the highest levels of the Australian Government. Starting with Foreign Minister Penny Wong‘s statements to a local radio station: “Like most Australians, I was rather shocked to realise that ‘Tassie (short for Tasmanian, ed.) Devils’ was not a name we had the rights to.
When specifically asked, Wong reportedly stated that she had ruled out, at least for the time being, calling US President Joe Biden to settle the issue, but declared herself open to any further appeals on the matter.
Background: several Brands, one symbol
When it comes to trade marks, there are several similar precedents in ‘Aussie‘ land. Starting, of course, with the island’s iconic marsupial, the kangaroo. In fact, the animal appears in hundreds of different brands, including that of Qantas, the national airline, as well as on the ‘Australian Made, Australian Grown‘ logo, which appears on food and clothing produced in Australia.
Warner Bros.’ reply.
In a brief interview with the 7News website, Warner Bros. recently stated that it appreciated the AFL’s ‘recognition and respect for our rights’, adding that ‘we have contacted the League and look forward to finding a happy resolution soon’.
Meanwhile, for its part, the AFL has already filed two applications for registration of the trade marks “Tasmania Devils” and “Tassie Devils” with the Australian IP Office, and the league’s chief executive himself, Gillon McLachlan, has stated that he sees nothing wrong with the use of these terms, adding quietly that “there are open-minded people at Warner Bros” as also reported on the pages of the New York Times.
We’ll have to wait and see how this plays out…