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Bouchat v. Baltimore Ravens, L.P., Nos. 12-2543 & 12-2548

Decided: December 17, 2013

The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s decision that the defendants’ use of plaintiff’s “Flying B” logo that was used as the Baltimore Ravens’ logo from 1996 to 1998 in historical films and in historical exhibits was “fair use” and thus, did not infringe on the plaintiff’s copyright.

Prior to the Baltimore Ravens’ first season in 1996, Plaintiff, Frederick Bouchat accused the Ravens of using his “Flying B” logo without his permission. After the 1998 season, the Ravens adopted a new logo on their uniforms and merchandise. Bouchat and the Ravens subsequently underwent several rounds of litigation. In this, the fifth suit between Bouchat and the Ravens, Bouchat sued the NFL and the Ravens (collectively “Defendants”) over the use of the Flying B logo in videos shown on the NFL network and photographs located on the club level of the Ravens’ stadium. The district court found that the Defendants’ limited use of the Flying B logo constituted “fair use” of the logo, and thus, was not copyright infringement. Bouchat appealed.

On appeal, the Fourth Circuit first affirmed the district court’s finding that the NFL Network’s use of the Flying B was not copyright infringement. The Flying B logo is seen in three videos: Top Ten Draft Picks, Top Ten Draft Busts, and Sound FX. In the two Top Ten videos, the Flying B logo appears for less than one second, and is seen in video clips recounting the historical careers of NFL players. The NFL’s Sound FX video features audio clips from famous Ravens’ linebacker, Ray Lewis. One of the segments features a clip of Lewis at training camp where the Flying B logo is visible on some of the players’ helmets. Another shows Lewis making a tackle where the Flying B logo is visible on a helmet for less than a second. The Fourth Circuit found that the NFL’s use of the Flying B in these instances constituted “fair use,” primarily because the use of the logo was “transformative,” meaning that the NFL “employ[ed] the quoted matter in a different manner of or for a different purpose from the original.” The court explained that the videos were intended to present some historical narrative about NFL history, and not as an identifier for the Baltimore Ravens. Furthermore, the use of the logo was so insubstantial that the court found it “can be perceived only by someone who is looking for it.” Therefore, the NFL’s use of the Flying B logo constituted “fair use” that was not copyright infringement.

Similarly, the Fourth Circuit held that the Ravens’ use of photographs featuring the Flying B logo on its club level at the Ravens’ stadium was fair use that did not qualify as copyright infringement. The club level provides fans a host of amenities including spacious seating, carpeted floors, specialty concessions, and enhanced customer service. The cost of these tickets can exceed $350 per game. Within the club level concourse, there is a timeline tracing the Ravens’ history beginning in 1881. The portion of the exhibit covering the 1996 and 1997 seasons features ticket stubs and photos bearing the Flying B logo. The court again concluded that that the use of the Flying B was “transformative.” The court emphasized that the “Flying B logo is included merely as an incidental component of this broader historical narrative.” Moreover, the “historical” focus of the timeline artifacts differs significantly from the branding and identifying purpose that the Flying B originally served. Therefore, the Fourth Circuit affirmed the district courts’ decision that Defendants did not infringe on Bouchat’s copyright of the Flying B logo.

Full Opinion

– Wesley B. Lambert