NEW YORK - The screams from the "Dawg Pound" have reached a New York federal judge, who says the Cleveland Browns and their fans earned rights to the phrase before an apparel company came along and tried to take it away.
In a ruling made public Thursday, U.S. District Judge Denny Chin played referee to the dispute that lingered more than a decade before the Hawaii-Pacific Apparel Group Inc. sued the Browns and NFL Properties in 2004.
"Here, no reasonable jury could find by clear and convincing evidence that the Browns and/or NFLP abandoned the mark" when Cleveland was without a professional football team from 1995-99, the judge concluded in a 16-page decision.
Chin recounted the history of the wildly enthusiastic end-zone celebrants to 1984, when members of the Browns defense called the team's defense the "dawg pound," an expression soon adopted by the bleacher fans for themselves.
Before long, the phrase became so popular that NFL Properties -- the marketing arm of professional football -- decided Cleveland was a hot market and registered "Cleveland Browns Dogs" and "Cleveland Browns Dawgs" as an Ohio trademark.
By 1989, the NFL was accepting licensing fees for T-shirts that used the words "Dawg Pound" and for a Hallmark Christmas card depicting Santa Claus sitting in a recliner watching a Browns game with a dog in a "Browns Dawg Pound" sweatshirt.
As the judge recounted it, though, storm clouds were gathering over Cleveland's rights to the trademark once the clothing company was founded in 1986 by Donald Shepherd in California.
Shepherd began to manufacture and distribute clothing bearing phrases such as "Dawg Pound," "Lil Dawg Pound" and "Top Dawg" in the early and mid '90s after his teenage son was called "Top Dawg" by members of his baseball team in 1991.
In March 1994, the company tried to register the "Dawg Pound" trademark but was opposed by the NFL. Shepherd said in court papers he had no interest in football and didn't know that the expression was used in Cleveland to refer to fans.
After the Browns franchise moved to Baltimore and was renamed the Ravens in 1995, the clothing company successfully registered the trademarks "Top Dawg" and "Lil Dawg Pound" and it eventually sold about $10 million worth of Dawg related merchandise, the judge said. The Browns returned to the league as an expansion team in 1999.
When the Browns and the NFL tried to register "Dawg Pound" as a trademark in March 1999, the request was denied because it was similar to the company's "Lil Dawg Pound" trademark.
A year later, the company sent a letter to the Browns and the NFL demanding that they stop using the "Dawg Pound" trademark.
Even as the litigation progressed, the Browns continued to promote the "Dawg Pound" on its Web site, where it called it "one of the most famous trademarks in sports."
After the ruling, the Browns said in statement: "We are happy with the court's decision. The Dawg Pound is just one example of how our fans passionately support the Browns and we are pleased it will remain a part of our heritage."
The company and its lawyer did not immediately return telephone message for comment.