There’s still time to nominate local icons for Best of D.C.
Howard Schulman did what nobody in the NFL has done lately: He made the Baltimore Ravens defense look feeble.
Schulman, lucky for him, didn’t ever have to go helmet to helmet with Ray Lewis or Rod Woodson on a gridiron. He whupped the Ravens in court. So instead of a brawny fullback or a big-play wideout, the Timonium attorney needed only a good case.
Fred Bouchat gave him one.
On Dec. 28, a federal appellate court in Baltimore rejected the Ravens’ request to rehear the team’s appeal of a jury’s verdict in favor of Schulman’s client, Bouchat, in what has become known as the “helmet-logo case.” That decision, the latest in a lawsuit that dates back to May 1997, effectively left Schulman with a perfect 3-0 record against the football team’s attorneys.
“You could say this was a David and Goliath situation,” Schulman tells me. “There are very few entities that can match firepower with the NFL in this country. And the NFL didn’t hesitate to turn all its New York lawyers and investigators against one guy.”
The one guy Schulman refers to was Bouchat. But if Bouchat was the David here, then Schulman was the stone that felled the football giant.
Bouchat, whose formal education ended in the ninth grade, was working as a security guard at the front entrance of a state office building in downtown Baltimore in the fall of 1995, when it was announced that his hometown would again have a football team.
Bouchat (who on Schulman’s advice would not be interviewed for this story) spent much of his spare time drawing and painting. Football was his other fixation. Soon after learning about the Cleveland Browns’ relocation to Baltimore, he combined his passions by doodling potential helmet logos for the squad that would be replacing his beloved Colts.
Even before the new team was officially named, Bouchat’s drawings showed that he leaned toward dubbing it the Ravensas a nod to ex-local Edgar Allan Poe. Bouchat gave logo drawings to friends and displayed other works of his art, including logo sketches and a repainted, miniaturized Cleveland Browns football helmet, at his desk at work.
“You couldn’t go in or out of the building without going by his desk,” says Schulman. “Everybody knew him, liked him, and liked his artwork.”
According to testimony at trial, in late March 1996, through contacts made at work, Bouchat was granted a private audience with John Moag, the head of the Maryland Stadium Authority, the agency that was overseeing the Browns’ move. At that meeting, Bouchat was told that the team would indeed be named the Ravens. Moag gave the excited civil servant the Stadium Authority’s fax number and told him to send along some logo sketches, which might then be passed on to the team’s officials, who kept their transition offices in the building.
Lo and behold, about two months later, the NFL officially introduced the new franchise as the Baltimore Ravens and unveiled its shield-and-bird logo. To Bouchat and acquaintances, the design was quite familiar.
Familiar enough that Bouchat desired some compensation. The recompense he requested from David Modell, Ravens team president and son of team owner Art Modell, was sweetly petite.
“All Mr. Bouchat wanted from the Ravens was a letter of acknowledgment and an autographed football helmet,” says Schulman. “That’s it. He was an amateur artist who had never sold anything in his life. And he’s a football patriot, a total fan. So it was a great source of pride to find that the team had used his design. He just wanted recognition. But he was a man forgotten in the rush to market a product for a multi-billion-dollar-a-year industry.”
The Ravens declined to honor Bouchat’s request. The team said that the logo had been produced by in-house staffers of NFL Properties, the league’s licensing arm, and that any similarities were coincidental.
So, at the urging of friends, Bouchat got an attorney and filed a $10 million suit in federal court, naming the Ravens and NFL Properties as defendants. At trial, Ravens lawyers argued that Modell had never seen Bouchat’s faxes to Moag and that the plaintiffs’ case relied on a “tortuous chain of hypothetical transmittals.” The defendants further asserted that the security guard had instead stolen his logo design from the team, and as evidence they pointed out that, at his desk at work, Bouchat sometimes displayed portraits of comic book heroes that he’d signed.
Schulman was unable to prove that Modell had in fact taken possession of Bouchat’s faxes. But the plaintiff’s attorney presented testimony from several co-workers who’d seen early renditions of his client’s works and from art experts who advised that the similarities between the security guard’s logo and the team’s weren’t likely coincidental. The Ravens defense was no match for that onslaught.
The jury found that the chain from the security guard to the league’s designers wasn’t so tortuous or hypothetical, and it sided with Bouchat. But because the case, in legal terms, was bifurcatedmeaning that a totally separate trial will be held to determine the penalty the transgressors must payBouchat hasn’t yet received a dime. He’s still a security guard for the state.Until the defendants exhaust their appeals of the original verdict, no penalty phase will commence.
And the Ravens don’t appear ready to give up. The team’s attorneys are now trying to set up a Super Bowl matchup of the legal variety. “We’re going to file with the [U.S.] Supreme Court to review the case,” says Ravens attorney George Beall, of Hogan & Hartson. Schulman likes his chances in that big game.
“I don’t think there’s any way the Supreme Court would take this case,” says Schulman (sounding very much like Al Gore’s supporters before…well, you know).
Even with the case pending, Bouchat remains a staunch supporter of the home team. “Talking to him after the Tennessee game, he told me, ‘We won! That’s great!’” says Schulman, himself a Ravens season-ticket-holder.
Regardless of the merits of the case, say copyright-law experts, the situation never should have come to this.
“The logos do look very similar, but the real amazing thing about this case is that the Ravens could have ended it if they’d just given the guy a signed helmet,” says Frank Cimino, an intellectual-property specialist with the D.C. offices of Clifford, Chance, Rogers, and Wells. “As much as I love the Ravens, to think that it could now go all the way to the Supreme Court after that, that’s just absurd.”
The Ravens, because of the trial loss, stopped using the shield on their helmets prior to the 1999 season. The replacement design, a manic bird mocked even by some home fans as the “Heckle and Jeckle” logo, makes for what is widely regarded as the ugliest headgear in the league. Dave McKenna