Can I use the Ironman trademark to describe a race I did?

The Ironman trademark (the second link is to one of the many Ironman registrations) is an extremely valuable trademark to the World Triathlon Corporation. The WTC works to protect its unauthorized use (though sometimes I do question their authorized use). I have heard questions before from other triathletes about how they can use the Ironman word mark, whether in blogs, on t-shirts, in articles.

Ownership in a trademark doesn’t convey the right to remove the use of a word from English. Instead, it provides an exclusive right to prevent others from using the mark in a confusing way, one that may damage the trademark owner’s goodwill in the mark or the mark’s own ability to differentiate the underlying product or service from others.

Consistent with this, the public doesn’t always need to request permission from the trademark owner to use the trademark; that permission is only necessary in certain (but many) situations. Permission isn’t necessary when the use meets the legal definition of “fair use.” Some uses are frequently considered fair, such as a 15-second clip of a motorcycle stunt on the evening news, or a professor’s copying of a portion of a newspaper article passed out in class. Comparative or nominative uses are often considered fair, as well: if BMW names Mercedes in a commercial to say how it outperformed their car, for example, that use is likely not infringement.

The use that many people worry about and have asked me about likely falls under fair use. It would be fine to write an article about your experience at Ironman Lake Placid and use the Ironman trademark in the body of the article. You’d be okay writing a book about your journey to the Ironman World Championships and identifying the various races you competed in as Ironman races. You are using the mark only because you are naming the specific event, and identifying the event without using the trademark would be unduly burdensome. Imagine how difficult it would be to describe the event without using the trademark: for instance, last November, I competed in a branded race where I swam 2.4 miles, biked 112 miles, and ran 26.2 miles in Tempe, Arizona, versus, last November, I did Ironman Arizona.

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  1. I read your article with some interest. I have been doing some online researching on the Iron Man trademark because someone involved with us evidently knew about the litigiousness of the WTC group. Here is my situation.

    I have just finished a book and am about to publish it. My title is “Iron-Man Christianity”. It is a Christian discipleship book. The title is based on the theme of the book …which is how the leadership principles which vince lombardi used to turn around the GB Packers in 1959 and changed them into a dynasty which dominated the NFL for 9 years.

    The title is drawn from the early days (pre-1964) of football, prior to the unlimited substitution rules being implemented which meant that most players had to play both offense and defense. This was called “iron man football”. Would this qualify under the “fair use” rules you cited? We even have two opposing football helmets on the cover, so there is no link to either comic books or triathlons. Interested in your thoughts.\\EE

    1. Hi Ed,

      I appreciate your readership and questions, but unfortunately, I cannot comment on your specific situation. Perhaps others may have insights for you. I would recommend you contact an attorney directly for advice on this. Best of luck.


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