It is safe to say that 2019 was a good year for Canadian sports. In June, the Toronto Raptors became the first Canadian National Basketball Association (NBA) team to win the championship, and the frenzy surrounding their playoff run was nothing short of feverish. Notably, fans from both Canada and the United States used the #WeTheNorth hashtag to demonstrate their support, and the slogan quickly became synonymous with grit, determination, and ultimately victory.
The value of the intellectual property (IP) rights behind the We The North slogan is hard to quantify, but it is evident that the phrase was a pivotal component of the team’s marketing campaign and business strategy. WE THE NORTH is a trademark registered in 2014 and is owned by the Raptors’ parent company, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment Ltd., in both Canada and the US. The trademark protection covers merchandise and other services, and therefore for others to use it, a license would be required. During their playoff run, the slogan seemed to gain the most traction on Twitter, with fans and supporters using the hashtag to show their support. In August of 2019, the #WeTheNorth tag was the fourth most commonly used hashtag in Canada. Widespread use of the slogan as a hashtag on Twitter is not trademark infringement, but the “hype” surrounding the franchise garnered as a result of this widespread use has led to a variety of opportunities for commercialization, such as a more cohesive marketing and product branding strategy. The hats, apparel and a variety of other merchandise brandishing the slogan have been highly sought after by fans, with many lining up or camping overnight in order to have the opportunity to purchase some of the limited stock.
However, the Raptors were not the only successful Canadian athletes of 2019. Bianca Andreescu made Canadian history, first when she won the Rogers Cup title and then again at the US Open when she managed to prevail over the legendary Serena Williams. Throughout her rise to fame, hashtags such as #SheTheNorth quickly gained momentum, and was used by fans across Canada, including Prime Minister Trudeau. Interestingly, what began as a clever adaptation of the Raptor’s slogan quickly became a valuable IP asset for Andreescu herself. She filed for the trademark SHE THE NORTH in Canada and the US at the end of 2019, and as a result, she now has a book titled She The North which was released at the end of last year.
It is interesting to see one athlete ultimately benefit from the hype generated by IP owned by another. Intuitively, one might assume this would lead to legal issues. When asked, Shannon Hosford, Maple Leaf Sports & Entertainment’s Vice President of Marketing and Communications, said that if others wanted to adapt the slogan for their own use, the company would not be “policing that”. Other brands have also opted to use a different version of the slogan, including Bell Lightbox’s “See the North” or the US basketball crowd using “We The South”. The story of how one business’s IP strategy can give rise to many more dependent on its success is a lesson as to how one can commercialize hype using IP protection.
Written by Stephanie Cho, a second year JD Candidate at Osgoode Hall Law School. Stephanie is also a Clinic Fellow at the Osgoode Innovation Clinic.