A federal judge will decide a point of law in a complex situation that swirls around the Salt Lake Buzz name and a legal battle with Georgia Tech, which holds the Buzz trademark for its university mascot.
U.S. District Judge Tena Campbell said Monday she will make a decision based on the "first to file" rule regarding Georgia Tech's motions to either dismiss or move to Georgia a case brought by Salt Lake Buzz owner Joe Buzas.The first to file rule is based on federal case law that essentially says the first party to file suit is heard first and in its locale. But that isn't always the case.
For example, parties who deceive others during business deals and then quickly make a pre-emptive strike in court may not fall under the first to file criteria.
The Buzz dispute arose in 1996 when a Georgia Tech officials spied Salt Lake Buzz merchandise for sale. The Atlanta-based university's Yellow Jackets have Buzz, a bee mascot decked out in blue and yellow. The Salt Lake Buzz have Buzzy, which also is a blue and gold bee.
They both sell hefty amounts of merchandise locally and nationally.
Buzas' attorney Gregory Phillips said the team negotiated for some time about the name and indicated that Buzas needed to know what was up before a December winter meeting of baseball team owners. That way any proposed name change could be discussed there.
But Phillips said Georgia Tech remained silent for 3 1/2 months before sending a "Draconian" written agreement with many new provisions only a short time before the 142-game baseball season was gearing up.
"As far as we were concerned, settlement discussions had broken off," Phillips said.
But the question of the trademark infringement remained, so Buzas filed a lawsuit in Utah in March asking for a ruling that his team's name wasn't infringing on Georgia Tech's trademarks. "We didn't want to live in that uncertainty. We wanted to know if we could use the name `Salt Lake Buzz,' " Phillips said.
Georgia tech officials have a different version. They said an agreement had been reached stating that the Salt Lake Buzz would stop using the name by Sept. 4, 1998. Buzas even took part in a local contest to rename the team, according to press reports, and there was no indication anything was amiss, Georgia Tech officials said.
As a result, the university was in no hurry to contact the other side.
"They didn't know there was a rush," said Alan Sullivan, one of Georgia Tech's attorneys.
Also, Georgia Tech must clear legal matters through state bureaucracies and the university's licensing agent, which takes time.
In April, George Tech filed suit in Atlanta alleging that Buzas' team is liable for trademark infringement and unfair competition because the name is confusing to the public.
Throughout Monday's hearing, Campbell questioned Buzas' side about why it hadn't bothered to call Georgia Tech to see what the situation was and asked if Georgia Tech hadn't been lulled into thinking that a settlement was pending before being hit with a lawsuit.
She also questioned Georgia Tech officials about why the university delayed so long to get feedback before taking action.
The hearing was filled with back and forth arguments of the we-said, they-said, why-didn't-they-call variety.
However, the dispute is more than a mere technicality or an issue of school or team pride.
Georgia Tech officials say the university makes about $300,000 to $500,000 a year from sales of its "Buzz" merchandise which finances scholarships. Buzas has estimated the Utah team makes about the same amount.