John Cena recently made waves after apologizing to the People’s Republic of China for calling Taiwan a “country” during an interview with a Taiwanese broadcaster. Cena’s apology, delivered in Mandarin Chinese by the wrestler himself, prompted critics to claim that the long-time WWE superstar had been bought and paid for by the rising world superpower.
However, China acquiring such an ownership interest in Cena isn’t possible, at least under the terms of intellectual property law — he belongs to the WWE. Although “John Cena” is the wrestler’s real name, WWE controls the trademark rights to it. Whenever the name “John Cena” appears in a commercial or film, the WWE gets a cut.
Cena, arguably the company’s greatest superstar since Dwayne Johnson and Steve Austin traded blows during the late 1990s, willingly signed over those rights. During an interview with Howard Stern, Cena stated that owner Vince McMahon’s WWE engineered his success and therefore deserved a percentage of his earnings.
Although not every WWE wrestler feels likewise, few wrestlers understand the fine points of the Lanham Act — the primary federal trademark statute in the U.S., which prohibits trademark infringement, trademark dilution, and other practices that might impact the value of the trademark.
When a young wrestler signs with the WWE, as former WWE star Ryan “Ryback” Reeves explained in a recent interview, the company’s lawyers typically present them with a boilerplate contract in which they sign over their ring name, real name, likeness, signature, props, gestures, and routines. No matter how well-known a wrestler was prior to signing with the WWE, they’re usually rebranded upon entry. Tyler Black, already well-known around the world under this original ring name, nevertheless entered the WWE as Seth Rollins. Bryan Danielson, similarly established, became Daniel Bryan. Former WWE Diva Barbara Blank was saddled with the moniker Kelly Kelly because, according to Vince McMahon, “we’ve never given anyone two first names before.”
The company’s aggressive approach to intellectual property drew national attention last October, when Vince McMahon sent a terse cease-and-desist memorandum to wrestlers engaged in Twitch streaming and personalized Cameo video production. Although some wrestlers used those platforms under their real names, McMahon understood the strength of his position: either those real names had already been explicitly signed over to the WWE or, if not, the real names were generating value only because viewers and customers knew the wrestlers through their WWE ring names.
“At the end of the day, many companies are nothing more than huge bundles of IP,” says business analyst Ben Labe. “They don’t own elaborate manufacturing facilities or vast stretches of land. As far as trademarks go, Disney is the model business — they own the rights to the various franchises that keep getting made and remade into boring blockbuster films. But the WWE, despite more modest annual revenue in the neighborhood of a billion dollars, is incredibly aggressive about IP. They trademark everything, they do so immediately, and they protect them aggressively.”
The WWE is so aggressive, in fact, that it sometimes sees trademarks rejected by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) because it fails to submit applications accompanied by the signed consent of the individual whose name is being trademarked. When the WWE submitted the application to register “JOHN CENA” as a service mark in 2003, the USPTO rejected it a few months later because Cena’s signed permission hadn’t been attached. The application was resubmitted with Cena’s signature in 2004, then approved a year later. More recently, in February 2021, the USPTO rejected the WWE’s application to register the names Dominik Mysterio and Dominik Gutiérrez — the ring and real names, respectively, of the son of long-time wrestling star Rey Mysterio.
“It’s possible this is just an administrative oversight given how many of these are likely being processed in a calendar year for the company, probably anywhere from 40 to 50,” says Labe. “But if you read the WWE’s response to adverse USPTO agency action regarding their attempts to register the name ‘Rey Mysterio’ as a service mark back in 2005, their attorney is arguing the company should be able to trademark the names of anyone on their active roster, regardless of whether the individual used the name previously, like Rey did, and regardless of whether Rey gave signed consent. That’s wild!”
Ryan Reeves, who wrestled as Ryback and legally changed his name to Ryback in 2016, wasn’t aware of the terms and conditions of the contract he signed. When asked during an interview about this topic about how the trademarks impact the use of his original real name for online marketing purposes, he explained that he wasn’t entirely certain but found himself engaged in the costly process of recovering the Ryback trademark, which he claimed would cost tens of thousands of dollars and might not even work out in his favor.
Ryback’s decision to change his real name recalled a similar move by Jim “Ultimate Warrior” Hellwig when he changed his name to Warrior during a 1993 trademark dispute with the WWE. The Ultimate Warrior cases — there were such cases, a trademark case decided at the state supreme court level in 1997 and a copyright case decided in federal court in 1999 — are sometimes cited as precedent, but lack dispositive value. The trademark case, Warrior v. Titan Sports, Inc. (Ariz. Sup. Ct. 1997), concerned the use of “Warrior,” which Hellwig had legally changed his name to in 1993. The WWE didn’t own the rights to the name “Jim Hellwig,” and the name Hellwig selected for himself, “Warrior,” was specifically chosen to avoid confusion with the “Ultimate Warrior.” As a result, the court held that Hellwig’s “Warrior” name didn’t infringe on the WWE’s “Ultimate Warrior” trademark.
“The Warrior situation is a far cry from the scenario in which a company owns both the real name you’re changing and the ring name you’ve changed it to,” says Nevada-based tax and intellectual property attorney Aaron Richter. “Honestly, that close nexus between your real name and the ring name they give you…it’s a recipe for a violation of the Lanham Act. When you’re looking for a Lanham Act violation, you look to see if the mark is legally valid, you look to see who owns it, and finally you determine whether the mark is causing confusion. In the case of these ring names, because the WWE used its global platform to enhance the brand of even the best-known wrestlers they sign, there’s arguably infringement occurring long after the wrestlers have left the company.”
“It’s even more complicated if they’ve properly trademarked the wrestler’s real name,” Richter continues. “And we’re not even getting into how the wrestlers might also be contracting away their state-level right to publicity, which provides a common-law or state-law way to prevent commercial exploitation of your identity. It goes on and on. Not even a billion-dollar company has the ability to pursue every instance of their wrestlers acting out, but the WWE could go after any former wrestler if they wanted to, I suppose.”
And sometimes they do. For example, when tag team wrestlers Cash Wheeler and Dax Harwood left the WWE last year to join All Elite Wrestling, they attempted to trademark a variety of terms related to their brand — “no flips, just fists,” “top guys,” and “say yeah” among them — only to have the WWE respond to their USPTO application by noting that these phrases were coined by the WWE and do not constitute “wrestler-created intellectual property.”
But Wheeler and Harwood hold a trump card: they’re working with Tampa attorney Michael Dockins, who specializes in the extremely niche area of trademarking wrestling gimmicks.
“It’s a great idea to work with an experienced IP attorney earlier in your career, so you can enter the WWE with key aspects of your brand already trademarked,” explains attorney Richter. “You then have leverage to either transfer the trademark to the WWE, maybe for some extra money, or keep the trademark so you can use it after you leave. The company may try to limit what you can do in terms of outside revenue streams, as a condition of your employment as an independent contractor while you’re there, but your trademarked name will remain your name when you hit the road.”
Samoa Joe, a long-time Ring of Honor and Total Nonstop Action stalwart, recently left the WWE and took his previously-trademarked name with him. Bo Dallas and Mojo Rawley — real names Taylor Rotunda and Dean Muhtadi, respectively — may end up with their ring names in spite of earlier WWE attempts to trademark them, because the applications are still pending the written consent of the performers. None of these three seem likely to end up like AEW wrestler and executive Cody Runnels, who remains deeply conflicted about how his well-established ring name “Cody Rhodes” as well as his father’s famous ring name “Dusty Rhodes” remain under WWE control.
Despite the WWE’s best efforts to control every aspect of their wrestlers’ lives, to literally “own” their real and virtual presences down to the smallest detail, wrestlers can fight back through savvy stewardship of their own brands.
“Before you go there, get an attorney,” advises Richter. “Get your own house in order. And if you’ve already signed on and know they’re trying to trademark your name, don’t rush to give written consent. Drag your feet. Keep forgetting to sign the form. Once you’re gone from the company and that USPTO application is abandoned because they never got your written consent, the ring name is fair game again — the WWE tried to trademark the ring name Val Venis in 2007, long after that guy had left the company, and their application got rejected. Now this old wrestler is all over social media today as former WWE star Val Venis, posting his kooky conspiracy theories, and the WWE can’t do anything about that.”
This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.