Talk Derby to Me: The Private Regulation of Roller Derby Names

Photo: iStockphoto

Trademarks are so significant in our economy that many firms and individuals register any mark they think may prove valuable.  Warner Bros. has trademarked dozens of uses of the term “Quidditch” (the magical flying sport from Harry Potter), including “Quidditch lingerie.” The producers of The Simpsons have trademarked Homer’s familiar “D’oh!” Paris Hilton has trademarked “That’s hot!” And a few women have trademarked the names they use when they play roller derby – which is having a major comeback in cities all over the nation.

Trademarked derby girl (their preferred moniker) “skate names” include Amber Alert, Anna Notherthing, Busta Armov, Felon D. Generous, and Ivanna S. Pankin. But the vast majority of the thousands of U.S.-based derby girls have not trademarked their names. And yet nearly all skate names are unique: there is only one Hell O’Kittie, though there are doubtless many derby girls who wish they had that name. If the names are valuable, why don’t more of them use trademarks?

A new paper by David Fagundes explains. Rather than use trademark law, derby girls have instead developed a strong private system of name ownership. At its heart is the Master Roster, a privately-administered list of skate names, which is searchable online. See for yourself. The Master Roster functions as a sort of private trademark registry, where registration is equivalent to a right of exclusive use.  And the social norms that accompany it allow the Master Roster to stand in for legal protection.

The result is a cheap and efficient system of private regulation. Fagundes describes how the system works:

Three core principles govern derby-name regulation. First is a uniqueness requirement: Only one skater can skate under a given name. The second instantiates the idea of priority: Where two names are identical or excessively similar, the skater with the earlier claim to the name has the right to use it. The third creates elemental standards for resolving overlapping name conflicts: Where two names are reasonably similar, the second skater must ask the first skater for permission to use the name. This permission must be in writing and submitted to the Master Roster‘s administrators in order to authenticate it. Names that are very similar to preexisting names but that have been approved via written permission by the senior skater are listed on the Master Roster with the note “(cleared)”.

Enforcement is mostly done via personal contact between skaters, backed by the threat of social disapproval by other skaters. As Fagundes explains, membership in the skating community is a central value for most derby girls. The result is widespread compliance with the Roster system. But, in the few cases that reputational sanctions and shaming don’t work, there’s always violence.  Violence is a pretty credible sanction in roller derby because the sport itself is violent, and thus retaliation can be disguised within the normal flow of a derby bout. As a couple derby girls put it:

“[T]here‘s no laws in place – you don‘t even have to register your derby name – it‘s COURTESY. Ref might not see you smash me in the face – but I know, and trust me baby, I‘m comin for ya.”  Added another, “I totally agree with the not stealing/copying of names… Someone once said imitation was the best form of flattery… So flatter me and then let me kick your a$$ (sic).”

So why don’t derby girls trademark their valuable skate names? Because they have created a stable system of private order that functions as an effective stand-in for the law—without all the legal hassle.

 

 

 

 

 

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  1. Cid says:

    And names are still honored after a player has retired. I’ve been retired now for two years and my name is still honored. It’s a great system!

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  2. Patrick says:

    So they have created a world with rules and regulations, but without the need of lawyers! What a wonderful society that would be!

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    • assumo says:

      I had always assumed that the model for such a society was anarchistic, but the Derby social hierarchy is anything but. They all pay dues, but the main form of currency is social acceptance, and the glory of getting a chance in a “bout”, or roller derby match. Break the central rules, and you risk losing both of these, plus whatever you personally invested in your rise to full membership. There is a loose, but formal structure of authority at the top ranks, and the bottom ranks are kind of “lord of the flies”.
      The interesting thing is that the sport itself , and the persona of the girls, is usually seen as rebellious. In creating their own social norms, they are able to break most if not all rules of society while keeping their own rules airtight

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  3. Vernon Maher says:

    A similar name registration system exists within the Society for Creative Anachronism. Faux historical names are kept and approved internally. One addition is that the name has to be somewhat historically accurate in addition to being different from other names.

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  4. TAS says:

    I’m happy that the authors of the blog have made a foray into derby culture. But please don’t say that we sanction violence. We joke about it, because we will say that we’ll kick your bum on the track, but anyone who would actively engage in malicious activity on the track is to be shunned just as much, if not more, than someone who steals a name. Its an athletic sport with far less fighting than men’s hockey, so please don’t forward inappropriate stereotypes. Thanks.

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    • Slaughter Lily says:

      100% this.

      It is a full-contact sport, but no one views that as license to purposely hurt other skaters on or off the rink! Something like that would be punished severely.

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    • Anthrobrawlogist says:

      Exactly – I was surprised by the author’s interpretation of the derby quotes about kicking ass. You must have been able to tell they were a joke, yes? Even if someone did steal my name, and I did bout against her, I wouldn’t smash her in the face because that could get me kicked out of the bout. I would just try and outplay her.

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  5. Busta Armove says:

    The reason regular legal trademarking is rare in roller derby, is that there’s no money in roller derby. Trademarking, even domestically, is expensive. Roller derby draws mostly from the lower middle class, where people struggle in their real lives to get by, particularly in the current economy. Trademarking internationally (there are roller derby leagues in at least 25 countries), is completely cost prohibitive both for individuals and leagues as well.

    If you had an army of lawyers willing to work pro-bono to trademark derby names, the situation might be different. But with 25,000+ registered skate names, it doesn’t seem likely or even logistically possible (just maintaining the name roster seems to be a difficult task, as it is always months behind).

    The registered skate name system will only last as long as respect for that system continues. Recent discussions in forums like the skatelogforum.com indicate that some newcomers to the sport are not willing to respect that system when they find that the skate name they’ve fallen in love with is already registered, but was delayed in being posted.

    Busta Armov (actually a derby *guy*)
    Derby News Network contributor, fearless leader of the “Banked Rank” (see derbydeeds.com)
    former Head Referee, LA Derby Dolls; general opinionated derby trouble maker, married to 7-year LA Derby Dolls veteran skater Tara Armov

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  6. Axles of Evil says:

    This system would not work were it not for the incredibly hard work of a few amazing women who take on the arduous task of keeping track of all these names. It’s no small feat, especially on top of all the work they have to put into their own derby careers.

    To learn about the history of how the Master Roster came to be, check out our book “Down and Derby: the Insider’s Guide to Roller Derby” – http://www.amazon.com/Down-Derby-Insiders-Guide-Roller/dp/1593762747

    Axles of Evil
    LA Derby Dolls

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  7. daintyVILLAIN says:

    I love the roster system, but I don’t like that this article referred to our sport as “violent.” It’s a full-contact sport, yes, and there are jokes in the article about girls hurting each other for stealing names, but the point of the game isn’t to hurt each other.

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    • Scarlet O'Snap says:

      The interesting thing is, about 6 years ago the Two Evils database was stricter. It was harder to get a variant of a name approved. Now, with so many more leagues and names to register, things have gotten more loose. I wonder where it will be in 2 years.

      When I was thinking of my derby name I put it on Myspace (this dates the situation) and was IMMEDIATELY contacted by a skater from California with a sort-of similar name. She asked me not to use it. I was worried, so I then contacted the 2 other Scarlets on the list to make sure mine would be approved. From looking on the list now, I’m one of about 25 Scarlets and have never been contacted by any of them.

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    • Boots says:

      There is now a 8 month waiting list for this Honorary system name roster. Sorry its now out lived its usefulness. Its not fair to ask a new skater to wait almost a year to see if their name is approved. Its looks like our league will be takeing things in our own hands with the name roster. We are thinking of contacting all the local leagues for their rosters since its most likely we will be playing them. Its only fair. There are only so many names we can come up with, and if your in love with your name so be it. Pay for it to be registered. It would be fun during a game to have a head on battle with your other identity….

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  8. Poobah says:

    I have NEVER heard of a derby skater using violence to resolve a dispute over a derby name. In all honesty, a skater bogarting one’s registered derby name would be dealt with by the interleague reps. In other words, having an unregistered See Alice on the visiting team might make the home team not want to invite them to play.

    Skaters who make their interleague reps’ already difficult job even MORE difficult are bound to get some pressure to stop their problematic behavior. Be it using a name registered by another skater or starting one of those super-rare fights the author of this article seems to think are commonplace.

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