Here's the real story of how the WWF became WWE

Since it looks like WWE doesn't want you to know what actually happened anymore.

Screenshot: WWE Network.

Enjoy? Want to support this work and get other exclusive content? Then please subscribe for just $5/month or $50/year. Even if you’re not able to pay right now, please at least consider signing up for the free version, which will deliver all of the free posts directly to your email inbox, as well free preview excerpts of the paid subscriber-exclusive articles.

The following originally appeared in Figure Four Weekly issue #1056 in September 2015. Though the writing itself and lack of proper editing may or may not hold up great, I wanted to post the article as soon as possible in light of it being newly memory holed via the premiere episode of the Ruthless Aggression documentary series. And no, I don’t remember if there was a catalyst for me writing this article beyond “I had just found the documents and thought that the topic was interesting.” (I also don’t remember why I forgot that the Jim Neidhart USAir cases predated the Hogan/Zahorian stuff.)

In his 24 years serving as WWE’s main outside counsel, Jerry McDevtt has developed a reputation as having almost a magic touch, starting with the case that got him the gig. That was when he acted as Hulk Hogan’s lawyer to get him out of testifying at Dr. George Zahorian’s drug distribution trial, arguing that they had a legitimate doctor-patient relationship, the nature of which would be embarrassing or damaging to Hogan’s reputation. He became known to hardcore wrestling fans as part of Vince McMahon’s defense team in his own steroid distribution trial, and over the years, his fingerprints have been on just about every lawsuit or even potential lawsuit WWE was involved with. Perhaps his crowning achievement came in the form of the settlement that they got out of L. Brent Bozell and his Parents’ Television Council: The terms were public, with the  PTC owing $3.5 million and a public apology from Bozell for making untrue statements in trying to get sponsors to pull out of advertising on WWE programming.

WWE’s one really big loss was one that, to be honest, he probably couldn’t have salvaged and, due to being adjudicated in England, one he wasn’t officially part of: The battle with the Worldwide Fund for Nature (formerly the World Wildlife Fund) that cost them the WWF name. You don’t really hear this talked about anymore because, in preparation for the WWE Network launch, the company finally settled the outstanding issues that led to heavy, distracting editing of archival content. Before, you heard about it all the time: “How dare those panda idiots do this! Nobody confused them with WWE anyway!” That sort of thing. What most fans didn’t realize was that this all came out of WWE violating an agreement that Linda McMahon signed of her own free will.

As you’ve probably noticed if you’ve been reading this newsletter as of late, I’m really into digging through court record websites, various types of open records searches, etc. Recently, I discovered a new source that had various records of trademark disputes, including actions that the Fund had taken against WWE. One of the filings had not only the entire British appellate court ruling from February 2002, but also the full agreement between both WWFs that was at the crux of the case. So, once and for all, let’s take a look at what WWE actually agreed to and the circumstances around it.

The northeast territory owned by Vincent James McMahon and his minority partners (officially the Capitol Wrestling Corporation) changed its on-screen name from the World Wide Wrestling Federation (WWWF) to the World Wrestling Federation (WWF) in 1979. His son, the current Vince, Vincent Kennedy McMahon, formed Titan Sports and bought the promotion in 1982, and within a year or so started expanding the company nationwide, beginning with taking over dormant markets in California. It was around this time that Titan introduced the iconic, stylized WWF logo that lasted until 1997, which is usually referred to as the “block logo.”

In the appellate decision, it’s mentioned that “As the judge observed, the logo may not be immediately obvious as a representation of the initials ‘WWF’; he saw it first as ‘WF.’” He wasn’t the only one: Even Titan’s licensees sometimes had issues. Goodtimes Home Video, who produced a line of budget-priced WWF VHS tapes (in conjunction with Coliseum Home Video) in the ‘90s, released numerous home videos affixed with a label that said “WF [Name of Video Here].”   If Titan had used the logo almost exclusively, maybe they wouldn’t have had all of these problems, but “the Federation was also using the initials WWF in the form of ordinary letters,” with the judge using a 1992 merchandise catalog as an example.

The Fund didn’t cry foul until 1989, when Titan filed for an International Class trademark in the United States for the WWF initials in Class 41 (Education and entertainment services). The application asked to apply the trademark to “the production of professional wrestling events rendered live and through the media of television.” The matter was resolved on September 12, 1989, with Titan agreeing “that it would not use the mark ‘WWF’ in ‘Times Roman’ typeface when that mark was standing alone, that is, when not used in conjunction with the World Wrestling Federation’s logo or when [in] the context of the World Wrestling Federation Magazine.” The fund agreed not to oppose the trademark filing. That was it for the time being, and the judge noted that “the restriction imposed by the agreement was in practice very minor, particularly since the Federation did not use WWF in Times Roman.”

It started to heat up as Titan’s international expansion really started to take hold, with the Fund first opposing a registration in Canada in 1991. On September 30th of that year, Titan sent a letter to the Fund to try to open up negotiations, stemming from difficulty they had in registering a WWF trademark in Japan. In April of 1992, a federal grand jury was convened to investigate Vince McMahon and TItan Sports, with both he and the company indicted on steroid distribution and conspiracy charges in November 1993.  Linda McMahon characterized the landscape at the time in a statement that was admitted into evidence:

This was an anxious and frightening time for me, my family, and many of our staff… We were suffering from declining revenues and losing our market share, making our lenders concerned. On top of this, there was the spectre of the worst scenario, that my husband would go to prison and the Federation would be out of business…

Titan’s evidence made the suggestion that the Fund “sought to exploit the pressures of the Grand Jury proceedings in its negotiations with the Federation,” but they never argued this before the judge. The Fund stipulated that they were unaware of the investigation until October f 1993, at which point the agreement over the WWE name was already in its final stages. Meanwhile, Titan started opposing Fund applications in Denmark and Spain before the Fund finally sued them in Switzerland. trying to get an injunction against the publication of the local version of Titan’s WWF Magazine. One on hand, “The Judge thought that there was unlikely to be any confusion as regards the magazines of the parties (‘the average purchaser wishing to buy a wrestling magazine would hardly mistake it for the 'WWF News' or vice versa’).” On the other hand: “Owing to the high degree to which the plaintiff's mark WWF is well known, the public may well get the wrong impression that the plaintiff is in some form associated with the World Wrestling Federation.”

Titan didn’t challenge the judgment and entered into settlement negotiations with the Fund, with one December 1992 meeting being particularly contentious about how Titan’s reputation could taint them.  “During these negotiations the Fund became aware of an article in Penthouse about the Federation. This alleged involvement of the Federation's wrestlers and employees in ‘violence, drug free for alls, sexual harassment, paedophilia and rape. There were similar headlines in the more general press. The Fund, already concerned about confusion became more so because even the slightest chance of any confusion or association was likely to be injurious.” One month later, the Fund cited “confusion in the marketplace” as one of the six points of their position, stating that they felt “Overwhelming repugnance at being associated with the World Wrestling Federation, violence, [and] anti-conservation with Skinner and Jake the Snake.”

They continued negotiating, and Titan never wavered in insisting there was no risk of confusion, with the Fund just as steadfast in their opposite stance.  finalized an agreement on January 20, 1994: 

  • Stop using the WWF initials in printed, written, or other visual form, as well is in connection with their business in general. Allowances were made for merchandise and publications approved for production before a certain point. 

  • No longer filing trademarks the WWF initials and cancel existing registrations except for those of Titan’s block logo in any colors.

  • Cease speaking the WWF initials orally, though they could use it occasionally in contexts like referring to “the current WWF champion.”

  • Notify business partners that they must exclusively be referred to by the name “World Wrestling Federation.”

The Fund would drop all legal action and not take further action unless the agreement was violated. They would also notify Titan immediately if they learned of any unaffiliated party using the WWF initials in pro wrestling. Contrary to some accounts over the years, it doesn't appear that there was anything explicitly saying Titan needed permission to change the logo. Instead, the issue with the “scratch logo” that Titan adopted in 1997 (“designed to appeal to a tougher, edgier audience and fanbase” according to Linda McMahon), that it read as “WWF” much more clearly than the block logo did. Titan argued it was an incremental change in the  tradition of past logo updates.

Also in 1997, Titan launched the website (previously, they just had a section on the proprietary America Online service) and, according to the Fund, “more or less used the initials at will and on an increasing scale.” While there was still an effort to avoid using the initials in Titan’s magazines, “a deliberate decision seems to have been made to develop the internet business based on a ‘WWF’ brand.”

Ed Kaufman, Titan/WWE’s house counsel from January 1997 to June 2008, said that he “took the view that the Agreement did not expressly cover the Internet and furthermore that the Federation was allowed to provide services in the United States under the initials. There was no doubt in my mind that the delivery of internet service in the United States by the Federation fell, in any event, within the parameters of this article.” He also found it “inexplicable” that the McMahons signed the agreement and couldn’t think of any reason that made sense other than the pressure they were under with the indictment having just gone down.

When everything came to a head in 2002, it really came came down to the scratch logo and registration. World Wrestling Federation Inc. (formerly Titan Sports) argued that the agreement asserted that they had certain rights to the initials internationally and that the domain registration in 1997 came before they could foresee how important the Internet would become their business, average daily life, and so on. With the logo, they continued to argue it was a basic evolution of the block logo and that the expense of a change would be huge.

The appellate court judges didn’t buy it: 

[I]f the Federation wanted to develop a worldwide trade, whether through the Internet or any other means, the letters WWF were a very risky base on which to build it. When it established its website, it was, or should have been, fully aware of that fact. The costs of ‘rebranding’ now, after some five years of development, are entirely attributable to its own decision to take that risk. The scratch ;go may be less significant in itself, but it was part of the same strategy. It was likewise a clear breach of the agreement, and the risks were apparent.

In May, the World Wrestling Federation became World Wrestling Entertainment. The first Raw with the new name featured numerous Hardcore Championship changes so Lillian Garcia could hammer home the new name when announcing the winner. Meanwhile, on old video content, the scratch logo and the initials would always be blurred (or muted if spoken), and that went on for over a decade until the settlement was reached. forwarded to until it didn’t. Then a funny thing happened: The domain lapsed, with the Fund never taking it over, and a fan bought it to use for a WWE discussion forum. You can probably imagine how well that went down.

Enjoy? Want to support this work and get other exclusive content? Then please subscribe for just $5/month or $50/year. Even if you’re not able to pay right now, please at least consider signing up for the free version, which will deliver all of the free posts directly to your email inbox, as well free preview excerpts of the paid subscriber-exclusive articles.