Stealing Home: MLB Attempts to Trademark “Boston,” “Houston,” and “Seattle”March 27, 2023

Boston. Houston. Seattle.

What comes to mind? The Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, and Seattle Mariners? Major League Baseball sure hopes so.

Last week, the MLB filed federal trademark applications for “Boston,” “Houston,” and “Seattle” with the USPTO on behalf of the aforementioned teams. Naturally, this raised some eyebrows. How can a baseball league or team own the name of a city? Well, they can’t.

First, remember that a trademark registration does not equate to “ownership” of a word, at least in the traditional sense. As I explained in an earlier blog post, trademarks are simply a source identification tool used to distinguish the sources of goods and services in commerce. It is how consumers know they will be getting a cheeseburger and french fries when they pull into McDonalds, or a coffee when they show up to Starbucks. That is to say, if (and that’s a big IF) the MLB were able to obtain trademark registrations for “Boston,” “Houston,” or “Seattle,” the MLB would not be able prevent other businesses or individuals from using these terms, except to the extent such use was in commerce and likely to cause consumer confusion.

If that distinction did not make sense, don’t fear—it is highly unlikely the MLB will even obtain trademark registrations for these terms.

Under 15 U.S.C. §1052(e)(2), a trademark shall be refused registration on the principal register if it “[c]onsists of a mark which . . . when used on or in connection with the goods of the applicant is primarily geographically descriptive of them.” In making this determination, the examining attorney must show that:

  1. The primary significance of the mark is a generally known geographic location;
  2. The goods or services originate in the place identified in the mark; and
  3. Purchasers would be likely to believe that the goods or services originate in the geographic place identified in the mark.

Boston, Houston, and Seattle are undoubtedly names of geographic locations known generally to the public. It is also a given that the services in question (which include “entertainment services, namely, baseball games and baseball exhibitions” in class 41) emanate from these well-known locations. Given the degree of public recognition of these cities and the lack of any distinguishing terms in the proposed marks, the USPTO is likely to determine they are primarily geographically descriptive, and highly so.

The ultimate question then is one of “acquired distinctiveness.” Under 15 U.S.C. §1052(f), a primarily geographically descriptive mark may be registered if in the minds of the public, the primary significance of the term is to identify the source of the product or service rather than the product or service itself. That means the MLB would need to establish that the primary significance of the terms “Boston,” “Houston,” and “Seattle” in the minds of consumers are the Boston Red Sox, Houston Astros, and Seattle Mariners, rather than, well, the cities of Boston, Houston, and Seattle.

A few years ago, English soccer club Liverpool F.C.—which is interestingly owned by the same group that owns the Boston Red Sox—failed to obtain a trademark registration for “Liverpool” in the U.K.. Will the MLB have better luck here? Possibly, but my prediction is a strikeout.

Nicholas J. Krob is an Associate Attorney in the TrademarkLicensing, and Litigation Practice Groups at McKee, Voorhees & Sease. For additional information, please visit or contact Nicholas directly via email at

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