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Name Games: WWF vs. WWF

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A gentle panda was pitted against some brutal "wrestlers" in this legal smackdown.

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The two organizations couldn't have been more different, but they were unceremoniously joined by the same acronym.

The WWF -- World Wildlife Fund -- and the WWF -- World Wrestling Federation -- were engaged in a legal headlock for 13 years before the conservation group was given exclusive rights to the acronym in 2002. The wrestling company ceded its "F" and changed its name to World Wrestling Entertainment (WWE), perhaps more appropriate for its brand of faux sport inside the ring.

"It's been a long time coming," a spokesman for the Canadian World Wildlife Fund said at the time. "WWF is really vital for us. We've been building that brand equity for so long. It's been the wrestlers against a cute little panda bear. And the panda won."

The question of who owns the letters of the alphabet seems strange, but in this case several judges had to answer that.

The World Wildlife Fund, based in Switzerland, trademarked the WWF logo in 1961, soon after its founding. In 1989, it changed its name to World Wide Fund for Nature, but kept its logo and retained the WWF initials in the U.S. and Canada. That same year, the wrestling organization, started in 1979 as Titan Sports, applied to trademark its name as the WWF following a reorganization.

The environmental group was worried that its image would be tarnished by the likes of professional wrestlers. These were the days of bawdy stars like Hulk Hogan and the Iron Sheikh. The two groups reached an agreement on how to use the logo, but by the early 1990s the fund alleged that the federation had violated it.

Initially, the two sides were not at war. "When we first registered our name in the early 1980's, the wildlife fund did not raise any challenges," Linda McMahon, now a candidate for US Senate in Connecticut and WWE's then-chief executive, told the New York Times in 2002.

But the fund got a Swiss injunction against the wrestling federation in 1993, "and threatened to take it around the world," McMahon said.

That led to an agreement in 1994 which placed limits on the federation's use of the initials. But, three years later, the fund sued again, saying the wrestling group breached the trademark by, among other things, setting up its website wwf.com. (The fund's website is wwf.org.)

Four years later, the High Court in London sided with the wildlife fund. In February, 2002, an appeals court upheld the ruling. (One more appeal to the British House of Lords was tossed out.) The court ruled that the fund had a right to be worried about its link to the wrestling federation.

In his written judgment, Justice Robin Jacob said that the charity was concerned by criminal proceedings against the federation in the US While the judge acknowledged that some look at wrestling as "harmless and perhaps enjoyable nonsense," he said others consider it "insalubrious," "meretricious" and "unsavory." The wildlife fund was justified, he said, in wanting to avoid any mistaken identity. "Why take a chance that there might be some sort of link-up?" he asked.

The judge did not see the decision as a difficult one. He described the federation's arguments, among other things, as "hopeless" and "astonishingly poor."

Certainly, the name change hasn't caused much harm to the WWE. It had to shell out money (reportedly as much as $50 million) to change WWF products, promotional material, its logo and stock symbol on the New York Stock Exchange. But its entertainment juggernaut has continued unchecked. Its market cap is now $1 billion. Every week 14.4 million viewers watch its shows.

Its brand remains less than tasteful but, for its many viewers, that is part of the charm. In this match, however, that so-called charm is exactly why the giant panda left the ring the winner.

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