Texas A&M is Horrible, Sues Local Bills Fan

logoIf you believe Texas A&M – a huge, well-regarded public university – Charles “Chuckie” Sonntag is the face of intellectual property theft in America. 

If you ask anyone around here, he’s an all-around nice guy.  He’s also a recent cancer survivor. And a double amputee. And confined to a wheelchair. And a recipient of Social Security Disability.  Chuckie Sonntag is not a deep-pocketed fellow. 

Chuckie Sonntag ran afoul of Texas A&M because he started a local movement to keep the Bills in Buffalo, and called it “12th Man Thunder”. Even a sports ignorant like I am knows that “12th man” refers to the fan in the stands, who cheers for his team.  It has already been changed to “Bills Fan Thunder” to appease an aggressive bully, Texas A&M. 

Perhaps Chuckie should have simply created a gender-neutral alternative and told Texas A&M to go to hell.  12th Player? 12th Position? A quick glance at the Wikipedia entry for “12th Man” shows that it’s used commonly by many teams. Texas A&M also holds the trademark on the term “12th Man”, and is very aggressive in enforcing it

Here’s Chuckie, whom Texas A&M just sued. I don’t do IP law, so I can’t opine on the legal issues in anything more than a rudimentary manner, but this whole thing seems outrageous and palpably unfair. From the trademark filing, the school owns “12th Man”.  

Maybe Sonntag should use “Twelfth Man”.

Sonntag isn’t using the mark for commercial reasons; he isn’t  making money on it. The term is common and, registration notwithstanding, not unique to Texas A&M. It would be wonderful to see someone challenge the validity of the underlying mark.  Seems unlikely to succeed, but I cannot tolerate big public universities bullying a grassroots fan effort like this. 

 The press release is below. 

“I can’t afford to pay an attorney but their lawsuit could cost me between $50,000 and $500,000,” Charles “Chuckie” Sonntag said. “That pretty much wipes out my $800 monthly Social Security check for the rest of my life.” Chuckie, who beat cancer last year, has suffered from polyostotic fibrous dysplasia – Albright’s Disease – since childhood and lost his left arm 20 years ago. In March, doctor’s
amputated his left leg.

Recovering In his hospital bed, Chuckie and his close friends decided to do something to stop the NFL Bills from leaving Buffalo – and “12thManThunder.com” was born. Established only two months ago, the idea took off and today is 10,000 Bills fans strong and growing. The group’s efforts have given a voice to loyal Bills fans at a time when their team may be moved to another city. Even local businesses have rallied around the group to donate 10 Bills season tickets for the city’s at-risk youth.

“My experience has proven two things: a handicapped person can accomplish just about anything – and Texas A&M will sue just about anybody,” Chuckie said.

On May 27th the University ordered its high-powered attorneys to demand Chuckie cease using the term “12th Man,” asserting a trademark they won in 1989 for the widely-used phrase meaning “fan support”. 

Many high schools in the United States incorporate 12th Man language into their booster clubs, including the Altaloma Braves, Dana Hills Dolphins, Seneca Golden Eagles, Washington Panthers, Richwood Knights, Diamond Bar Brahmas, Fairfield Falcons, and Brentwood Bruins.

Legally, Texas A&M could have moved on any of these groups or dozens more. Instead, on Monday, the University filed suit against a double amputee cancer survivor 1,500 miles away from College Station.

By filing suit, the University exposes Chuckie to automatic fines and fees – even though he expressed a willingness to cooperate. At one point, they gave him 24 hours to hand over all Internet domain names he bought, the T-shirts he printed and many other items. With the help of friends, he changed the name of his group to “BillsFanThunder.com” and stopped infringing on the trademark as fast as he could.

“How am I supposed to comply with their demands so quickly? I can’t even type that fast – I only have one hand,” Chuckie said.

Chuckie Sonntag is well known in Buffalo – for decades he has parked cars on the lawn of the small home he inherited next to the Buffalo Bills stadium. Unable to work, he devotes his time to helping two area non-profit organizations. He was honored this past weekend for surviving his bout with cancer during festivities at Roswell Park Cancer Institute in Buffalo.


  • Why should this surprise anyone?

    Mr. Sonntag makes a compelling figure, but if Texas A&M allows him to get away with it, where do you draw the line? We live in a country where money and influence are the dominant influencers and Texas A&M has plenty of both. If the law doesn’t suit them they will buy another one that does.

    • Also, failure to enforce a trademark can result in losing the trademark. Right or wrong in this case, that is the law.

      • I’m pretty sure lawyers have the means to get people to stop doing shit without actually filing a lawsuit. They couldn’t send cease/desist letters and give him 2 weeks to comply?

        • johnny baseball

          Which is exactly the case here…


          I suggest you folks get your facts straight…he’s not being sued. He’s been asked to cease/desist and offered a time frame to transition the 12th Man Thunder website name to a different name. Texas A&M made it clear they are trying to resolve any such differences amicably.
          Sorry to burst everyones’ bubble on this…

          • I had a group of friends try to start a clothing line called, “just kickin’ it”. Nike threatened to sue them within weeks because they said it was too close to “Just do it”.

        • johnny baseball

          I’m genuinely sorry that this gentleman had to deal with cancer and is a double amputee…that is horrible. But if he or anyone were to start a website or make t-shirts with “Just Do It”…guess what would happen? Same thing. It’s unfortunate he didn’t know…now he does. There’s really no story here.

          • There is. Texas A&M could have charged him a nominal license fee. But they didn’t. They wanted tens of thousands, and when he advised them that he didn’t have it, they threatened to sue him into insolvency. Fuck Texas A&M and fuck its lawyers and fuck its unconscionably overaggressive IP litigation.

          • I don’t think fucking them will help

          • johnny baseball

            You must have missed my link where A&M’s lawyers sent letters to cease/desist. It looks like he’s complied.

      • “Hi, Mr. Sonntag? Yeah, it’s Jimmy Joe Jim Bob from the Texas A&M legal department. I see you want to use our trademarked “12th Man” for your effort to keep the Buffalo Bills in your town. Seeing as how you don’t seem to be doing this for profit, I’ll tell you what. The school will license “12th Man” to you for this purpose in exchange for a $25 license fee. Whaddaya say?”

  • I have known Chuck for years, couldn’t meet a nicer person, he has a ton of people behind him in this fight

  • MichaelRCaputo

    Chuckie was asking for a license; they were negotiating. When they were told Chuckie had no money, they gave him 24 hours to shut it all down.

  • The original sin, in this case, was the government granting a trademark for a commonly used phrase.

    • robrobrobislike

      Seriously. “12th Man” seems pretty generic to grant it protection. Also there doesn’t seem to be any risk of deceiving people about source or endorsement here. No one hears “12th Man” and thinks “Texas A&M.” No one visiting the site would think that it was a Texas A&M site. The school should never have been able to register the mark.

      • Go look at pictures of the stadium dumbass and read the schools history (which is almost 100 years) in using it. Any college football fan would notice that.

        • So? They have to demand a six-figure license from a guy in Buffalo trying to keep the Bills in town? Texas A&M couldn’t just charge him $100 for a license and let it go at that? They have to be aggressive fucking assholes? Trademark law doesn’t mandate that.

        • robrobrobislike

          The whole point of a trademark is that it is an indicator of origin. If you have to “read the schools history” or “look at pictures of the stadium dumbass” (side note: I am unfamiliar with the phrase, does Texas A&M have one particular stadium dumbass, or is that just a generic term to refer to all Texas A&M fans?) to know this, then “12th Man” is not doing its job as a trademark and should not be afforded protection under US law.

          • and it take more then a dumbass to do a search on a trademark and not have to deal with that issue! Dumbass!

      • The 12th man tradition started in 1922 at A&M when E. King Gill was pulled out of the stands by then coach Dana X. Bible to suit up due to multiple injuries. He stood ready for the rest of the game, ready to serve his school if called upon. This is why today, every Aggie student in the crowd stand for the entire game. If any other school has a more legit tradition of the 12th man. I would love to hear that story.

        • robrobrobislike

          It doesn’t matter how “legit” the tradition is, you’re talking about a generic phrase. No one outside of Cow College thinks “Texas A&M” when they hear “12th Man.”

          It is not a source indicator for Texas A&M “products,” therefore it should not be afforded protection as such.

      • Ever have a bowl of Jello even though the brand might be Royal Gelatin? Just because it’s generic does not mean the owner should ignore its violation.

        • robrobrobislike

          That is idiotic. Generic trademarks are not protectable. It is literally one of the criteria for the PTO to grant protection.

          While Jell-O hasn’t lost protection as far as I know, it is one of the examples given in Wikipedia’s article on generic trademarks: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Generic_trademark

          Further, as I am from Western New York, I ONLY eat Jell-O brand gelatin from Leroy, New York. Your hypothetical makes no sense at all, dumdum.

    • Thomas Campbell

      It wasn’t that common when A&M began using it nearly 100 years ago.

      • The trademark was granted on September 4, 1990.

        • Thomas Campbell

          Quite true. And A&M was awarded that because they were the only entity that could prove unbroken constant use in reference to football fans for the longest amount of time. In this case originating on January 2, 1922.

          Not all trademarks are registered when they are first used. For instance, the University of Texas didn’t register “Bevo” until 1990.

  • robrobrobislike

    File under “IP law used for the exact opposite of its intended purpose” along with basically every other modern story about IP.

  • I wonder if A&M has title to the term “Bonfire” as well….?

  • How about cease and desist? He was asked, but is refusing to cease. He may be the nicest guy in the world, but he is legally infringing on a registered trademark and could discontinue his link and it’s all over. I suspect if A&M produced an infringement on the Bills such as BuffaloBillsSuck.com, they would likely be sued too. Truth goes both ways.

  • Change the name to the 12th Redskin then the government will step in and remove the trademark.

  • I want the domain name of artvoice.com. I will claim it as mine. My friends all think I am nice.

  • If you don’t actively defend your trademark, you lose it….

  • Texas A&M should make nice with the dude.

  • Is it me or is Jerry Jones is involved with this??? Clearly Jerry does not want the team to stay in Buffalo because he doesn’t make enough off that team. I am sure being in Texas he already knew about that being their trademark.

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