One WWF spent last week decrying the Bush energy plan as hopelessly pro-fossil-fuel and denouncing the harvesting of marine turtles in the northern Caribbean.
The other WWF spent last week promoting a pay-per-view wrestling event, which was highlighted by a 500-pound Samoan smothering his opponent with a “stinkface” and a former Olympian helplessly watching as his precious medals were rubbed against a foe’s genitals.
Hence the confusion. Or not.
Either way, the case of the two WWFs should be resolved in a courtroom this summer. The World Wildlife Fund, the internationally renowned naturalist group whose U.S. headquarters are located at 24th and M Streets NW, has accused the World Wrestling Federation of stealing its good name. Or, at least, its good initials. And it wants Vince McMahon’s Connecticut-based organization to pay.
On paper, it sure seems as if the do-gooder WWF’s case is tough
The do-gooder WWF can argue that it’s older than McMahon’s no-gooder WWF: The do-gooder WWF was founded in 1961, or about two decades before the no-gooder WWF started using the same three letters. But in the ’80s, the do-gooders, for whatever reason, changed the name of all their affiliates except the U.S. branch to the World Wide Fund for Nature, yet continued to use the acronym WWF around the globe. Just how much that muddled up the situation is reflected in the Cambridge International Dictionary of English. Look up “WWF” and you’ll find: “abbreviation for Worldwide Fund for Nature.”
McMahon’s WWF grew from Capitol Wrestling, a regional promotion run in the ’50s and early ’60s out of the D.C. areathe old Uline Arena was a flagship venueby Vincent J. McMahon, father of the current impresario. The elder McMahon adopted the name World Wide Wrestling Federation in 1963 and used the acronym WWWF until 1979, when the organization dropped the “Wide” and the second W. The WWF was born.
Within a few years of the letter dropping, Vince the Younger bought out his father, teamed up with the cable channel USA Network, and built his group into wrestling’s first national, and then international, powerhouse.
The first sign of trouble between the two WWFs came in 1989, when McMahon was in the process of registering a trademark. The do-gooder WWF opposed McMahon’s application but relented when the wrestling group agreed not to use the letters in the Times Roman typeface, standing alone.
That might have been the end of the squabble. But McMahon had made enemies in high places on his way to the top. And though he has over time dispatched many of those enemies one by one, those battles caused the predicament he’s now in with the do-gooder WWF.
In 1992, McMahon’s group became engulfed in a harassment scandal when some former employees alleged that high-ranking officials were demanding homosexual favors from young ring workers. The claims ultimately went nowhere, but the group was slimed for several months on Larry King Live (which ran on CNN, owned by McMahon’s longtime adversary Ted Turner), A Current Affair, The Phil Donahue Show, and essentially all of the then-fledgling tabloid-television programs.
That same year, the federal government made a big play to crush McMahon. After a long investigation, he was indicted in 1993 on four steroids-related counts, including, rather bizarrely, conspiring to defraud the Food and Drug Administration with regard to the distribution of steroids (which had only been assigned a controlled-substance designation in 1988). The prosecution even asked the court to order McMahon to forfeit his group’s $7 million headquarters as punishment for a petty steroids transaction that allegedly took place there.
That trial was a disaster for the government. McMahon walked away acquitted on all counts.
The investigations nevertheless caused McMahon and his group long-term damage. First, Turner took advantage of the situation by stealing big-name wrestlers including Hulk Hogan for his own promotion, World Championship Wrestling. It would take McMahon’s cable shows, most notably the Monday night Raw, several years to catch up to Turner’s programming in the ratings book. (McMahon got his final revenge on Turner this spring, when he purchased the clearly vanquished WCWwhich had lost tens of millions of dollars in its last year of operationfor a pittance.)
Lawyers at the do-gooder WWF’s offices in Switzerland also went after the weakened promotion. They sued a Swiss licensee of the wrestling group, saying that all the negative publicity in the United States was doing harm to the do-gooders’ good name. Out of that litigation, in 1994, the do-gooders got the wrestling group to sign a pact agreeing to limit, but not ban, its use of “WWF” in print in Europe. That agreement, however, didn’t foresee the Internet boom that helped McMahon regain his status as an entertainment force. And the wrestling group’s wwf.com has proven a far more popular destination than the do-gooders’ site, wwf.org. (The do-gooder organization also uses panda.org.)
So, last year, the do-gooder WWF sued McMahon’s organization in the English High Court, accusing the rasslers of breaching the 1994 agreement. McMahon offered to put a link to the do-gooders’ Web site on his own, which averages millions of page views per day, but that settlement offer was turned down. The parties are now scheduled to face off in July in London.
Like in any good smackdown, the two sides in the WWF-WWF matchup are staying in character as the trial approaches.
The do-gooder WWF conserves its words when asked about the suit. Nobody at the U.S. headquarters would comment for the record. Instead, officials faxed a statement from Dr. Claude Martin, director general of WWF International.
“Protecting the strength and integrity of the WWF brand world-wide is a prerequisite for our success in achieving our missionto stop the degradation of the planet’s natural environment and to build a future in which humans live in harmony with nature,” it reads.
Meanwhile, Jerry McDevitt, McMahon’s lawyer and mouthpiece for the suit, seems ready to throw Martin and his cronies over the top rope. McDevitt, an ex-Marine who helped Clinton adviser Dick Morris gain a toehold during his White House scandal, says he thinks the court will throw out the 1994 agreement because of the weakened position McMahon’s group was in when it was signed. And if standard trademark law and common sense are used, he says, the wrestlers can’t lose.
“This is a big waste of everybody’s time and money,” says McDevitt. “It’s frivolous way beyond belief. The basis of all trademark law is confusion among consumers. Nobody in the world could ever confuse the mission of a wildlife group with what we do. A million people have asked me who I represent over the years, and I’ve said WWF, and not one of them has ever said, ‘Oh, those environmental people?’ It’s always, ‘Can you get me tickets?’ Nobody sends us charitable contributions. WWF means wrestling, not World Wildlife Fund or Foundation or Federation or whatever the hell they call themselves.”
Because English courts permit only domestic barristers and solicitors to litigate, McDevitt will be limited to an advisory role at trial. The do-gooders should feel lucky about that.
“Oh, I’d love a chance to cross-examine their lawyers about this mess they’ve gotten everybody into. I’d love it,” he says. “I don’t care if it’s in a cage or not.” Dave McKenna