WWE puts a wine school in a legal sleeper hold over use of 'smackdown'

In 2006, the Wine School of Philadelphia began hosting the Sommelier Smackdown, a live competition in the spirit of Iron Chef pitting two wine stewards in a duel to determine who had the superior olfactory senses and taste buds. WSP founder Keith Wallace sold tickets for $62, and Zagat's took notice, calling the Sommelier Smackdown "the latest hot culinary competition."

But when Wallace tried to trademark Sommelier Smackdown a year ago, he attracted the unwanted attention of Vince McMahon, chief executive of World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE). McMahon (pictured, aloft) wasn't amused by Wallace's use of "smackdown"; on September 29, the WWE filed an objection with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Wallace isn't concerned that McMahon most likely wants to stomp his competition like a grape; there's a greater principle at stake, he tells DailyFinance. "I don't like bullies. I may have five employees to their 500, but I'm not going to back down."

Wallace isn't retaining a lawyer, but Lisa Casey Spaniel, an attorney with Blank Rome in Philadelphia, says the WWE is no stranger to trademark fights, having changed its name in 2002 after losing a long-running match against the seemingly welterweight World Wildlife Fund. "Overall, the WWE has a weak registration here," Spaniel says. The case, she says, may be settled using surveys to gauge consumer confusion over the two trademarks.

For its part, WWE feels that consumers will be confused and that it must protect "smackdown" as its intellectual property. "WWE has continually used its 'Smackdown' Marks in connection with its wrestling entertainment services and related consumer products since at least April 29, 1999, well prior to any date of first use upon which Applicant can rely," a company filing says. Wallace disputes the WWE's contention that the company coined "smackdown," arguing that rap star Dr. Dre, for one, got to "smackdown" first.

The PTO has permitted other "smackdown" trademarks, including behavior smackdown, energy smackdown, and movie smackdown, none of which have any apparent connection to the WWE. There's even another Sommelier Smackdown, hosted by a Boston wine store, whose owner says he was unaware of the Philadelphia event (or the ensuing controversy).

Wallace insists that Sommelier Smackdown is a name clearly intended as parody: "The term itself is very funny, I've gotta say." But whether "funny" helps his case is tough to say. Intellectual property cases are notoriously complex and expensive, and parties typically reach settlements.

"The WWE has got a pretty good argument that 'smackdown' is a trademark for its wrestling," says Tony Richardson, a senior principal at Fish & Richardson in New York, who has had about 40 years' experience in intellectual property law. "They've got registrations that are presumed to be valid."

Wallace says he began the process of trademarking Sommelier Smackdown after TV producers approached him about creating an Iron Chef–style competition. "Fighting a large national company," he says, "was not part of the plan."

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