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WTC and the term Ironman

Written by: Douglas Robinson
Date: Sun Mar 20 2011

Many people have strong feelings about the World Triathlon Corporation (WTC). Often it involves the pricing of their events or their dominance in the sport. This article does not address those issues. Rather, what follows is a discussion addressing the common question: Why can't I use the term "Ironman" for any triathlon?

Dan Empfield wrote an extensive article detailing the history of the Ironman trademark in an article from August 2001.

People frequently argue that the term "Ironman" is equal to the term "marathon". For the most part this is not true. A marathon denotes a race of 26.2 miles. A Full Ironman denotes a race of 140.6 miles. However that is where the similarity ends. Marathon is a generic term while Ironman triathlon is a registered trademark. It is more appropriate to equate the term "ironman" to the term "marathon" as both terms are generic, i.e., are generally in the public domain with regard to racing and races.

The World Triathlon Corporation (WTC) is the focus of a lot of animosity for their restrictions on the use of the term "Ironman" with regard to triathlons. As Dan stated this sentiment is unfair. As Chris McCormack correctly said in his recent ST interview, "Because the WTC own the Ironman brand, they feel they have to protect it."

As far as their control of the Ironman trademark (hereafter Mark) is concerned, the WTC is within its rights, and the public actually benefits from this. A quick review of the purpose of trademarks and servicemarks should shed some light on things. Marks protect names, titles, symbols, slogans and combinations thereof that identify the source of a product or service. By allowing the registration of Marks, the Government helps consumers develop confidence in the sources and quality of goods and services.

When you buy a Nike running shoe you have confidence in the quality of the product you are buying. If Trademark protection did not exist then there would be nothing to prevent someone from making a running shoe bearing the word "Nike" along with the swoosh. In fact the incentive would be to produce the cheapest product since anyone could use the Mark on their shoe. Thus, even if Nike developed the "Nike" Mark by making a quality product and developing good will, other companies could make a inferior quality product, put the same "Nike" Mark on their shoe, and charge less. Not only would you have no confidence in the quality of the shoe you were buying, but in order to compete with the copiers, Nike would be forced to make a lower quality product. Ultimately the public would be harmed.

Thus it is clear that Trademark law exists to provide the public with confidence in the source and quality of goods and services. Trademarks protect consumers from being misled about the origin of goods and services, and they protect competition by guarding the goodwill developed by the owner of a Mark. Because of the existence of Trademark law the public is provided with indicators that we can use to determine the quality of goods before we buy them. These Marks thus represent the goodwill an entity has developed relating to a good or service.

An owner of a trademark can sue subsequent parties for trademark infringement. The standard is "likelihood of confusion." In particular, the use of a Mark in connection with the sale of goods or services constitutes infringement if it is likely to cause consumer confusion as to the source of those goods or services.

Regardless of whether you like the WTC or not, the majority of people know the quality of the event that they are participating in or watching if it is an "Ironman" event. If someone else used the Ironman Mark for a race most people would assume it was sponsored or run by the WTC. Thus the WTC has done a good job of making that association. I am sure that is a major effort on their part when they acquire another race organizer.
Types of Marks

The strength and eligibility of a Mark to obtain protection depends on a number of factors. Marks fall into one of the following four categories:

1. arbitrary or fanciful;
2. suggestive;
3. descriptive; and
4. generic.

The strongest terms are arbitrary or fanciful. Such terms are usually made up words and thus have no preconceived connotations as to their meaning other than their meaning as a trademark. Examples include the Marks Lego and Kodak.

Suggestive terms suggest a characteristic of a good or service without actually stating that characteristic. Examples include Jaguar for fast cars and Greyhound for buses.

Descriptive Marks identify some aspect of the goods or services and can only be protected if they have developed what is known as secondary meaning, e.g., an association by the public of the Mark with the owner's product or service. Examples include Bank of America and New York Life Insurance.

Generic Marks cannot receive trademark protection even if they have a secondary meaning. An important point is that owner's of famous Marks must be careful, because their Marks may lose protection if the public ubiquitously uses their Mark as a common noun or adjective. Examples include: Aspirin, Escalator, Kerosene, Netbook, Thermos, Yo-Yo and Zipper.

It is therefore important that a trademark owner carefully monitor it's Mark and make sure not only that others are not using or diluting their Mark, but take steps to prevent its Mark from becoming generic.

Unauthorized use of a trademark can dilute the Mark making it less distinctive. Thus it is imperative that a trademark owner prevent unauthorized use of their Marks which would dilute the distinctiveness of that Mark. Failure to do this can cause the loss of that trademark.

The Ironman Mark is most likely a suggestive Mark. Prior to the first race in Hawaii in 1977, there was no association between triathlon and the Ironman Mark. The Ironman Triathlon Mark was registered in 1981, and is presently owned by the WTC, along with many other variations and other Marks.

The WTC has been very diligent in its protection of the Ironman Mark. They provide the race organizers with a set of rules for the use of their protected Marks. Another way to protect the Mark is to make sure that the media does not use the term Ironman generically. As Dan pointed out in his earlier article, the Ironman Mark is integrally important to the WTC. Thus their protectiveness of the Ironman Mark is critical.

The term triathlon is available for use by anyone to describe a race involving swimming, biking and running. The fact that the term Ironman is not available without the authorization of the WTC is not an undue burden on the rest of use. Whether you like the WTC or not, by protecting the Ironman Mark, the public is assured of the quality of the race operated or sponsored by the WTC.
[Publisher's note: Douglas Robinson is a triathlete, a Slowtwitcher, a patent attorney, and is or new IP editor. He'll be writing from time to time about the IP landscape as it pertains to the events in which you might compete, the equipment you might use, the products you might ingest. If you have topics or questions you might like covered, you can contact Douglas at]


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Right on 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Mikel, Mar 30 2011 6:46PM

Great article. There will always be detractors of WTC and that's understandable. I like the brand and their product. I will continue to support them.

Another attorney's view 3 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Tom Galvani, Mar 29 2011 6:00PM

Doug - I wrote about a similar topic a few weeks ago as well. Seems to be on the brains of many lately. My main problem with the Ironman mark is the extent to which the WTC has licensed it. As I point out in my article, the mark appears on all sorts of goods, some related to athleticism, some not so much. With the expansion of the brand beyond triathlon, and then beyond sports, I'm not so sure the WTC is using it properly. I wouldn't say they are participating in naked licensing, but I definitely think they've reduced the ability for the mark to signal a consistent quality from a source. If you're interested, the article is here:

WTC, give me a break! 1 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Kate, Mar 24 2011 1:50PM

The more WTC tightens their grip that Ironman is THEIR term and ONLY THEIR term to use, the more they piss off triathlon community and come across as elitist. WTC has even banned races from using the work "Iron" in any part of their race, e.g., "Iron Girl Triathlon". I find that unfortunate that the WTC puts so much energy into protecting "their property" and monitoring and punishing those that use the terms instead of "letting it go" and welcome new athletes to the sport.

Protecting the Mark 5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: Scott, Mar 24 2011 1:43PM

Also important to note is that to the extent that WTC does not protect its Mark (preventing unauthorized use, threat of litigation, etc.), it could over time lose the rights it has in the Mark. In this way WTC is almost "forced" to protect its Mark.

Good article. I do not agree with everything WTC does, but I completely understand their actions with regard to protecting their Mark.

result rather than purpose 4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed by: John Blyth, Mar 24 2011 12:49PM

I believe the article mistakes a common, but by no means necessary, result of branding - some kind of quality control - with the intention, which is less quality control and more ownership, and the opportunity to protect something profitable. Further, I believe that by according the 70.3 race "Ironman" status, they have diluted the meaning of the term (not that a half iron is not its own kind of tough event, but still). I presume that there is some legal reason why the article should attempt to misrepresent reality in this way.

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