Rob McLaughlinColeen Rooney is the wife of ex-England striker Wayne Rooney, now the manager of D.C. United in the US. Rebekah Vardy is the wife of another ex-England striker, Jamie Vardy.  The British tabloids often run stories about the celebrity partners of successful footballers and for decades have been referring to them as ‘WAGs’ (an acronym of ‘wives and girlfriends’).

In 2019, Rooney noticed that the press was reporting stories based on her private Instagram posts.  She suspected that it was Vardy who was leaking these stories and to prove it she restricted access to her Instagram so that only Vardy could see it and then posted a number of fake stories.  After these appeared in the papers Rooney took to Twitter to detail her investigation and reveal the culprit.  The tweet went viral.  Social media and the press quickly latched on to the witty portmanteau ‘WAGatha Christie’– a reference to Rooney’s detective work in the style of the famous novels of Agatha Christie.  Vardy denied the accusation and sued Rooney for defamation.  The case went to trial in 2022 and was dismissed because the accusation was deemed most likely true.

London Entertainment Inc Ltd., reported to be acting on behalf of Vardy, registered the trademark WAGATHA CHRISTIE in the UK.  And the registration of her arch-nemesis’ nickname has recently attracted a lot of attention in the press.

Jasmine Walters

The WAGATHA CHRISTIE application covered a long list of merchandise and related services.  An opposition was filed by the owners of the CHRISTY trademark, a luxury linen brand, against the clothing and textile classes. The application was then divided, separating the opposed classes and allowing the WAGATHA CHRISTIE mark to be registered for everything else.  This is standard practice where you want to expedite registration for the unopposed classes, because it is only once the registration is granted that a registration can be enforced against third parties.

But the enforcement of this registration may not be so straightforward.  The term ‘Wagatha Christie’ has been widely used in the public sphere since 2019, and is already the name of a TV series and a play about the defamation trial.  Parallels can be drawn with KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON, a phrase that originated on morale boosting war-time posters and has been used on countless products since then.  Many parties have registered variations of the mark KEEP CALM AND CARRY ON over the years, but with so much third-party use to tolerate on the market the value and effectiveness of these registrations are diminished and there is a risk that the mark becomes incapable of performing its essential function of identifying trade origin.

Vardy’s move to register the mark has been touted in the press as an act of revenge against Rooney following the failed defamation suit because it may prevent her from using the trademark herself.   Although Wagatha Christie is her own nickname, if Rooney were to use it as a trademark the ‘own name’ defense to infringement would not apply.  This defense covers birth names and stage names, but not epithets given to you by the press.  However, because Rooney is the Wagatha Christie, consumers might assume that WAGATHA CHRISTIE branded products originate with her, which could support an argument that Vardy’s registration is liable to deceive consumers and is therefore invalid.

A challenge against Vardy’s registration has also been voiced by Dan Atkinson, the comedian and journalist who coined the nickname ‘Wagatha Christie’ and who may have grounds to invalidate the registration by relying on his copyright.  That is, if he can prove that it is an original qualifying work and that he is the owner of the copyright.  The threshold for originality might prove an issue when the copyright work is as short as two words.  And there might be some difficulty proving that he was the one who created it, which has been a topic of debate.

Savvy media personalities who are involved in high-profile stories such as this would be wise to register any nicknames or catchphrases that are generated in the press and online if they ever intend to commercialize these as brands.  Otherwise, they might get snapped up by someone else!

Written by Rob McLaughlin, Associate & Jasmine Walters, Assistant, Reddie & Grose LLP

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