ORCHARD PARK, N.Y. (WIVB-TV) – Over the past the decade, the phrase “Bills Mafia” has gained so much traction, it’s now widely accepted to describe Buffalo’s passionate fan base as well as a way to describe doing good in the Western New York community.
But on Monday, October 12, the Buffalo Bills applied to trademark “Bills Mafia” as well as a logo with those words.
According to the filings, the Bills are looking to use the phrase “Bills Mafia” on a series of clothing items like t-shirts, hats, and a long, specific list of many more apparel items.
Bills fans were quick on social media Friday to accuse the Bills organization of a money grab, but Bills Mafia co-founder Del Reid suggested standing down late Friday afternoon.
“To their credit, they reached out to me, I didn’t reach out to them, they reached out to me about what this could look like moving forward,” Reid said.
He’s encouraging people to see the good, explaining the Bills have asked him to work with them and tell the Mafia story on their platform.
As for the history of the beloved phrase, a small group of diehard fans considered the founders of Bills Mafia, including Reid, coined the term an entire decade ago in good fun on social media. Bills players, sports broadcasters, and more have all come to embrace it and use it themselves.
Reid says, today, it is so much more than a hashtag, now bringing fans together in a wholesome way.
“I hope people understand that it is so much more than just the fact they might sell some Bills Mafia shirts, hats or whatever…they understand. I met with them three times now, and I stressed every time the importance that Bills Mafia is community. It’s about helping your fellow fan,” Reid said.
Filing for a trademark won’t prevent anyone from using the phrase, either. Trademark attorney Ellen Simpson of Simpson & Simpson, PLLC, helped clear up that concern.
“It’s not taking a phrase out of the English language that others have developed. It’s taking use of a phrase and using in association with a specific type of good,” she explained. “So the Bills are claiming ownership of it only with clothing, not in association with everything.”
So what’s next? Simpson says the application will be assigned to a U.S. Patent and Trade Office attorney a few months from now for review. The attorney will make sure it wouldn’t compete with any other confusingly similar products, and then the Bills will have to prove they are actually selling the trademark in order to achieve federal registration. The average person may recognize a registered product or logo as the little “R” in a circle often attached to an image. In the meantime, the Buffalo Bills don’t have to wait to start selling.
This should not affect Reid’s do-good company, 26 Shirts, which has long sold its own “Mafia” line, and Reid says the Bills are not trying to “squeeze him out.”
“The families that we help, the causes that we support…I think most people on social media who know me, they know I won’t compromise that. They know I will never stop giving back,” Reid said.
26 Shirts donates a portion of its proceeds to Western New Yorkers in need, raising more than $900,000 to date.
“The work I have done with 26 Shirts is the most important work I do in my life, and I would never, ever let that be compromised,” he reiterated.
From a legal standpoint, Simpson says they are likely different enough from each other.
“If [26 Shirts] has been selling it beforehand, I believe they could still continue to use it because they would have had usage of that prior to the time that the Bills filed the application for ‘Bills Mafia,’ and again, if they’re just printing in on the front of a t-shirt, it’s arguably not a trademark, just an ornamental design,” Simpson explained.
Reid says countless people reached out to him and the other Bills Mafia co-founders Friday; he said he is very thankful for the support and to know that so many people care.
Erica Brecher is an anchor and reporter who has been part of the News 4 team since 2018. See more of her work here.