Sports
3:13 pm
Tue May 6, 2014

Brewskee-Ball Founders Refuse To Be Sidelined By Trademark Case

Originally published on Tue May 6, 2014 6:04 pm

The founders of Brewskee-Ball like to say they've taken Skee-Ball from the arcade to the bar, turning the old-time amusement park game into a competitive sport with hundreds of dedicated players in a handful of locations across the country, including Brooklyn, N.Y., San Francisco and Austin.

But the company that makes Skee-Ball machines is not amused.

It's suing Brewskee-Ball's founders for trademark infringement. The league isn't rolling over, though, and co-founder Eric Pavony is launching a crowdfunding campaign called "Skee the People" to raise money for his legal defense.

Before launching the league in 2005, Pavony says he met with the CEO of Skee-Ball Inc. outside Philadelphia.

"He gave us his full blessing to start the league and he kind of chuckled when we said, 'Hey, can we call it Brewskee-Ball?' " Pavony says. "He said, 'Yeah, of course.' We shook on it. And we got the good times rolling."

The league uses official Skee-Ball machines. The players fling a series of balls up a lane and into the air, hoping to land them in a series of round plastic rings, but the league had to invent its own scoring system and other rules. Bad puns and drinking are optional but encouraged.

Pavony says he didn't hear from Skee-Ball Inc. again until 2010, when the company's representatives sent an email asking questions after the league got some national press. Then Skee-Ball's lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter, ordering the league to stop using the name Brewskee-Ball. When that didn't happen, Skee-Ball sued the league for trademark infringement.

"We essentially dedicated ourselves to growing and promoting this game to a whole new demographic and marketplace," Pavony says. "Everyone kind of says, when I tell them about the lawsuit, like, why the hell would Skee-Ball Inc. sue you guys and stop what you're doing?"

Skee-Ball Inc. declined to be interviewed for this story, but trademark lawyers say there are some good reasons why the company would file a lawsuit.

"The law says that if you basically don't protect the trademark, at some point it will become a generic term," says Joseph Dreitler, a trademark lawyer with Dreitler True in Ohio. "It will become free for anybody to use."

Dreitler says history is full of brand names that became generic nouns, including elevator, cellophane and aspirin. The process is so common it even has a name: genericide. It makes sense that Skee-Ball would try to avoid that fate.

"They may be more than a day and a dollar short," Dreitler says. "Those folks may be about decades late and a dollar short."

Most trademark cases settle out of court. So far, not this one. Dozens of motions have been filed by both sides. Still, nobody has blinked.

Lawyers for Brewskee-Ball argue that the name Skee-Ball — which is more than 100 years old — is already generic.

"There's no other word to describe Skee-Ball other than Skee-Ball," says Kristen McCallion, a lawyer at Fish and Richardson, the firm that's representing Brewskee-Ball.

Pavony, the Brewskee-Ball co-founder, agrees.

"I don't know, a ramp-based ring toss game for kids with balls? It's funny, right?" Pavony says. "But it's actually not because it's cost us a ton of money to fight this thing already and we haven't even gone to trial yet."

Pavony won't say how much how much he's spent on legal bills, but he's launching a crowdfunding campaign on the website RocketHub in the hopes of raising $100,000 to help fight Skee-Ball's lawsuit — and keep the good times rolling.

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:

Skee-Ball is not just an amusement park game. It's also a competitive sport. Skee-Ball is that cross between bowling and darts. You roll a ball up a lane, up an incline and you hope into one of the higher-scoring plastic rings. Well, there is a league called Brewskee-Ball, and the company that makes the game is not amused. It's suing for trademark infringement, as NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: The founders of Brewskee-Ball like to say they've taken Skee-Ball from the arcade to the bar...

GROUP: (Singing) Oh say can you see...

ROSE: ...in this case, the Full Circle Bar in Brooklyn, where dozens of competitors have gathered for a tournament to crown the best Skee-Ball roller of the year.

ERIC PAVONY: Based on the statistics from the course of the regular season, the top 32 individual rollers duke it out on the lanes and it's awesome. It's like NCAA - N-Skee-AA bracket tournament.

ROSE: Eric Pavony is the co-founder of Brewskee-Ball. The league uses official Skee-Ball machines but the rules are all its own. Bad puns and drinking are optional but encouraged. Before starting the league back in 2005, Pavony says he went to Pennsylvania and met with the CEO of Skee-Ball.

PAVONY: He gave us his full blessing to start the league and he kind of chuckled when we said, hey, can we call it Brewskee-Ball? He said, yeah, of course. We shook on it and we got the good times rolling.

ROSE: Pavony says he didn't hear from Skee-Ball again until 2010, when the company's rep sent an email asking questions after the league got some national press. Then Skee-Ball's lawyer sent a cease-and-desist letter, ordering the league to stop using the name Brewskee-Ball. When that didn't happen, Skee-Ball sued Pavony's company for trademark infringement.

PAVONY: We essentially, you know, dedicated ourselves to, like, growing and promoting this game to a whole new demographic and marketplace, right? You know, everyone kind of says, when I tell them about the lawsuit, like, why the hell would Skee-Ball Inc. sue you guys and stop what you're doing?

ROSE: Skee-Ball Inc. declined to be interviewed for this story but trademark lawyers say there are some good reasons why the company would file a lawsuit.

JOSEPH DREITLER: The law says that if you basically don't protect a trademark, at some point it will become a generic term. It will become free for anybody to use.

ROSE: Joseph Dreitler is a lawyer in Ohio. He says history is full of brand names that became generic nouns, like elevator, cellophane and aspirin. The process is so common it even has a name: genericide. Dreitler says it makes sense that Skee-Ball would try to avoid that fate.

Skee-Ball, I think, the problem they have is they may be more than a day and a dollar short. Those folks may be, like, about decades late and a dollar short.

Most trademark cases settle out of court. But so far, not this one. Dozens of motions have been filed by both sides and still nobody has blinked. Brewskee-Ball's lawyers, Kristen McCallion, says the name Skee-Ball is more than 100 years old and it's already generic.

KRISTEN MCCALLION: There's no other word to describe Skee-Ball other than Skee-Ball - just like baseball, basketball. Playing baseball, playing Skee-Ball. There's no other way to say it.

ROSE: Just go ahead and try, says Brewskee-Ball founder Eric Pavony.

PAVONY: I don't know, a ramp-based ring toss game for kids with balls? It's funny, right? But it's actually not because it's cost us a ton of money to fight this thing already and we haven't even gotten to trial yet.

ROSE: Pavony won't say how much how much he's spent so far, but he is launching a crowdfunding campaign called Skee the People in the hopes of raising $100,000 to help pay his legal bills and keep the good times rolling. Joel Rose, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.