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. Terror Australis says:

    I think that the roster has become a bit of a dinasour. There are leagues ALL over the world and Derby is growing fast.
    As others have said the notion of ‘sanctioned violence’ on Derby is ridiculous. It’s a legitimate sport, a contact sport yes but do other contact sports have to defend themselves continuously? -I don’t think so. Hopefully this outdated view of Derby will soon be a thing of the past.

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  2. El Toupée says:

    Once upon a time this system worked… but no more. There are 700+ leagues, worldwide, and the waiting time for a yay or nay from the ‘Master Roster’ is between 3 and 9 months for those of us outside of the USA – oh, look, an American skater has already got your name, despite you registering it before they even began skating!

    The honour system works, no two ways about it, but this version of it sure needs overhauling. And let’s not get complacent – there are girls out there skating under their given names, and how are you going to tell someone that they can’t use the name their ma ‘n’ pa gave ‘em?!

    e.T.

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  3. Snarker Posey says:

    Fagundes mentions this, but the “don’t be a douchebag” rule gets a lot of respect in the derby world. I also wonder how much of this is about trust — trusting other skaters to maintain the list more than trusting PTO and gov’t paperwork. Derby girls care far less about an official gov’t sanction than they do about their reputation in the derby world. Having an internal system for registering and enforcing names (including, less strictly, team/league names) just aligns with those values.

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  4. Robin YoLife says:

    In genreal, this article is on the right track (no pun intended) on all accounts. Yes, there is a private system in place that replaces the need for legal trademarks in most cases. Yes, there are social and other consequences for stepping outside the system. This is all true. Thanks for the article, Freakonomics. Loved the books, too. :-)

    But ok, maybe there is some level of exaggeration in the article’s characterization of violent or physical circumstances that may occur if a skater “steals” a name. But maybe not. Holy crap, there is a ton of crazy stuff that happens on and off the track as a result of some sort of rivalry.

    However, these consequences run a whole lot deeper than just in the instances of name stealing. For example, even though A LOT of roller derby players think about “scary” ways to take out their competitors, it’s just not “polite” to talk about it that way. Especially with newer teams/leagues, they are in fear of the social consequences of EVERY little thing they do. (I really feel for newer leagues, as it can be exhausting keeping up with all the social norms and trying to prevent derby faux pas.)

    As for the Two Evils roster itself, I think the system could continue to function reasonably well with a few tweaks. Better technology/software and some automation would be a good place to start. That would require some money and also relinquishing some control over the list. If there aren’t improvements made to the system (and soon), the roster could become obsolete and ‘go the way of the DoDo’. But I also think that if you are really going to get butt-hurt about your name being taken, just get a friggin trademark!

    As a funny aside, I started derby in 2004 and have skated for about six years, and according to the roster, my name is set “To Be Deleted” next month. Hmmm, I guess I’d better get my lawyer on the phone after all. ;-)

    Robin YoLife
    Editor of Yo, Roller Derby…
    http://www.yorollerderby.com

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  5. Museknuckle says:

    The incentive so far, is for derby leagues to respect each others names so they can play each other without problems. Busta Armov is right about the current financial state of Roller Derby and the people that play it.(see comment below) But some of those roller girls are attempting to make money off the reputation of their derby name. With paid training sessions and retail level skate shops and even equipment manufacturing. I bet they will trade mark all of the names associated with that business. It wont be long before we see outside derby business people try to capitalize on the lack of trademark protection. Example: Donald Trump opens the Busta Armoff roller derby academy. With a trademark on the name and then gives Busta Armov a cease and desist letter claiming infringement of the name. The master roster really has nothing to do with trademarks. Here is another question could Hell O’Kitty trademark her name or would the Hello Kitty company put a stop to it? hmmm

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  6. Dave Fagundes says:

    For some reason I just noticed this post, so am coming late to the discussion. But thanks to Kal & Chris for blogging about my paper, and to all the commenters from inside and outside the derby world.

    A number of people have observed that violence is not used as a sanction in resolving derby-name disputes. This is true, and in the paper I make it very clear that the threatening language quoted above is not to be taken at face value. To quote myself,

    “These threats are just talk, after all, and should be taken with a grain of salt. There is no evidence (that I‘ve seen, anyway) of a derby girl beating up someone who used her name without permission.”

    This post is, after all, just a quick summary of the paper, so some of these nuances necessarily and quite reasonably have to be left out. That said, I don’t think it’s inaccurate to say that some aspects of derby are “violent.” It is, after all, a full-contact sport, and like other full-contact sports (football, hockey), this necessarily entails some pretty violent play. Of course, this does _not_ mean the sport is gratuitously or unnecessarily violent (and neither Kal nor Chris nor I have suggested that it is). Rather, the violence of roller derby is, as with other full-contact sports, hemmed in by strict rules that govern when and how you can hit, and which are enforced carefully by bout officials. Again, the paper itself explains this and other rules of derby–and stresses that it is as serious an endeavor as any other full-contact sport–in Part I.

    As to Busta’s point about the costs of trademarks, I think that’s a major part of the story, but as I argue in the paper, there are lots of other considerations. One is that formal legal mechanisms may be an ill-fitting way to enforce disputes internal to the derby world. Like many subcultures, derby people seem to like to resolve their disputes internally and on their own terms, and without intervention from outside forces that may not share their values, so having to resort to courts and lawyers and formal processes to enforce trademarks might be unappealing even if it were affordable.

    I also want to second Axles’ mention of her (and Kasey Bomber’s) book, Down and Derby. I had a pretty good understanding of derby culture when I started working on this paper, but I still found their book to be an invaluable resource (as well as a damned entertaining read), and ended up citing it countless times throughout my article.

    Finally, as for the status of the Master Roster, I just talked to its current administrator today, and since taking over from Paige Burner (who was truly heroic in administering it for years), Elaina has impressively managed to get the name backlog down to only a few months (currently dating to January 2011), so the eight-month figure is somewhat out of date (though the backlog was that long for part of 2010). Based on my conversation with Elaina, I do think it’s right that the standards for name registration have necessarily become looser. The rule now appears to be that a proposed name is invalid only if it is in its entirety highly similar to a preexisting name; it’s no longer the case that a name will be rejected for only partial overlap with preexisting names (which may have been true a while ago). Also, in the past year or so, I’ve seen on the MR an increasing number of instances where skaters have allowed others to use virtually identical names, which was almost unheard of (at least in terms of formal registration) even a year ago. The people I’ve spoken to have suggested that this is because the rate of increase in derby participants is growing faster than the rate of increase in new cultural references, so that it’s increasingly hard to find a truly unique name. On the other hand, the MR’s new administrators have done a really good job of prompting leagues to remove unused names from the MR, so that may help the congestion issue.

    In any event, thanks to all of you for the comments. This paper remains a work in progress, and it’s very very important to me that it’s as accurate as possible about the way it portrays derby culture, so please do let me know if there are any other criticisms or concerns. You can post here, or email me: dfagundes at swlaw dot edu. Best,

    DF

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    • Marquee says:

      As you can see, derby people are a *little* passionate about what they do. Interesting stuff, though! Flat track derby is an interesting study in many subjects!

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  7. filmdianne@yahoo.com says:

    I think once a skater retires, they should keep their name. I see on the roster many of my old teammates who actually retired as veterans have had their names REMOVED from the roster recently. Now I understand if a newbie drops out, but if you contributed to your league for 3 years why do that lose their name upon retirement?

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    • Dave Fagundes says:

      My understanding from talking to the Master Roster folks is that many leagues impose a tiered system of name retirement, so that the longer you’ve skated, the longer you get to keep your name after retirement (& this may vary a lot from league to league). Derby legends can keep their name permanently, but skaters who only did derby for a year or so and weren’t that deeply invested in the sport would have theirs removed immediately upon retirement.

      Of course, this all depends on whether leagues actually notify the MR of a skater’s retirement. If a league doesn’t tell the MR admins that someone’s stopped skating, they have no way to verify that, so retired names can and sometimes do remain on the roster for a long time. But my sense from talking to Elaina is that she’s been really effective at encouraging leagues to report un-used and unwanted names so they’re freed up for future skaters.

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  8. rerra says:

    This is the first time I’ve ever heard the words “two evils” and “efficient” together without “is in no way” in between.

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