Millions to be Made with Your Words

Michael Buffer has probably made more money than anyone else on Earth by stepping inside a boxing ring — and never throwing a punch.

Buffer is no wimp. But his manicured hands, perfectly coiffed hair, and gleaming white teeth attest to a life based on something other than his fists.

He comes to every fight dressed in a tuxedo. And once he's inside the ring, he does what pacifist parents tell their children when facing a fight. He uses his mouth.

So before the fists start flying, he lets out the one cry that earns him his living. It's a cry that he can do like no one else — by not only by virtue of his golden lungs and throat, but by law.

And it goes: "Let's Get Ready to Ruuummmmmmbbbbllllle!"

Let's Roll and Rumble

With those five words, Buffer and his brother have established an empire that's made millions. Wholesale licensing revenues have grossed about $150 million over the last three years, his brother-manager Bruce said.

For a brief announcing engagement that takes anywhere from 10 to 15 minutes, Michael Buffer makes in the range of $15,000 to $30,000, his brother said.

The money comes from far more places than boxing. Buffer's trademark "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" slogan has allowed him to branch out into announcing all matter of events — from sports, to entertainment, to corporate functions and private parties.

Buffer has also extended to licensing products, among them video games, toys and movies. He received a commission for the 2000 Warner Bros. wrestling film Ready to Rumble.

His personal success is a particularly strong reminder of what's at stake in the tug-of-war over another utterance, the Sept. 11-inspired "Let's Roll."

"Let's roll," for anyone who doesn't know it by now, is believed to be the last known phrase mouthed by suburban dad Todd Beamer before he and his fellow passengers on the doomed United Flight 93 took on their hijackers on Sept. 11, forcing the plane to crash in a field.

Since that tragic day, those two words have been immortalized as a symbol of American bravery and defiance in the face of terrorism. It has shown up on novelty items of all sorts; singer Neil Young used it in an anthem, and the president even tried to make it a rallying cry for the nation.

Now, Todd Beamer's wife is trying to seize the phrase as her own, fighting makers of floppy hats, keep-the-beer-can-cold foam holders and other backyard-barbecue paraphernalia from hijacking the memory of her dead husband.

"Let's roll" is seemingly as innocuous and ubiquitous as "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" — and it could be as profitable and defensible as well.

"'Let's roll' has a ring to it," Bruce Buffer said.

Careful Choosing

It's takes plenty of work to stay in charge of million-dollar words, however. "It's not easy," Bruce Buffer said.

Buffer told ABCNEWS he has been involved in "maybe over 100" legal actions over the phrase — ranging from suing Iran-Contra figure Oliver North because he led his talk show with it, and to asking radio broadcaster Don Imus to cease-and-desist using the phrase as well.

Sony's Columbia Pictures and New Line Cinema also heard from their lawyers when they used the phrase in promos of the movie Booty Call and Rumble in the Bronx.

Buffer says he had "never, ever lost" one of these cases. Awards have ranged from four figures to a "healthy" six-figures.

The key to their success, lawyers say, is the Buffers' trademark on the phrase, and their willingness to use the law to defend it.

Buffer said much the same thing. One of the biggest problems for trademarks, he said, is that if you allow too many people use the phrase, then you've lost control. "If you don't protect it, then you're in trouble," he said.

Not Universal Protection

Just because the phrase is trademarked though, lawyers say, that doesn't mean no one can ever use it.

A trademark's main purpose is to associate a phrase or service with a particular source, said Sharon Marsh, an attorney adviser for the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The main issue is the "likelihood of confusion," she said.

To that end, trademarks must be applied individually for any one of 42 classes — so a permit for "Brand X" musical instruments would not prevent someone else from registering "Brand X" pharmaceuticals.

Michael Buffer originally trademarked his "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" under a class that applies to announcing sports and entertainment events. He has since branched out to obtain trademarks for other things, like videogames and clothing.

When "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" has been used without license, Buffer's attorneys have argued that their use created an inaccurate impression that he was associated with the users.

In their lawsuit against Oliver North, they alleged North's use of a recording of his announcement unfairly associated him with a figure with a "controversial reputation." Buffer's promotion materials state he has "attained worldwide recognition and acknowledgment as the source" of the phrase.

"'Let's Get Ready to Rumble'" is more than five words, Bruce Buffer said. It also evokes his brother's voice, his presence and the "visual image of a fine-looking human being" pronouncing them, he said.

Two Other Protections

While a trademark for one class of item might not apply to other classes of items, lawyers said there are additional protections arising from copyrights.

One is the issue of dilution, which can prevent a company from registering a certain trademark regardless of the difference in class. It mostly applies to marks that are so famous any use of them would affect the value of the mark to the owner.

One of the best real-life examples of a company using the dilution argument is "Toys R' Us," which has quashed attempts at similar names like "Lawyers R' Us," said Mark McCreary, a lawyer with Philadelphia firm Fox Rothschild, O'Brien & Frankel.

Another example, he said was that "if Company A wants to use "Intel" to describe a handgun, Intel Corporation would have a very strong argument that registration of the mark 'INTEL' for handguns would dilute Intel Corporation's mark."

Buffer might also seek protection under the rights of publicity, said Robert Zielinski, chair of the Committee on Trademark, Copyrights & Unfair Competition of the Philadelphia Intellectual Property Law Association.

"It prohibits people from economically exploiting that person's likeness without compensating that individual," Zielinski said.

One of the most famous cases took place in 1992, when Frito-Lay hired a Tom Waits impersonator to sing a song, based on one of Waits' songs for a commercial, after Waits had repeatedly refused them. Waits argued that the song made his friends think he had sold out, and the jury awarded him $2.5 million.

In 1988, Ford tried a similar stunt, hiring Bette Midler's back-up singer for a commercial after Midler refused. The jury awarded Midler $400,000.

"'Let's Get Ready to Rumble' was not associated with boxing in that unique manner before Buffer adopted it," McCreary said. If someone used that phrase, people might assume "somehow it is Michael Buffer or is clearly trading on Michael Buffer's notoriety or celebrity status," Zielinski said.

Defending the Treasure

The protections are extensive, Bruce Buffer agreed — but he said much more than that comprises the success of "Let's Get Ready to Rumble."

"You got to keep it fresh," he said. That means more than protecting it from other people, but also diversifying, he said.

His brother announces all manner of events, including NBA games, Indy 500 races — even Fox's Celebrity Boxing, and an Aerosmith concert, he said.

As he's diversified, he also been selective with whom he allows to use the phrase. For example, Buffer said, they don't let strip clubs use it.

An idea is "worth as much as you put into it," he said. "To me, all business is the same it's just the product that's different and you can have a diamond in your hand, but if you don't market it correctly, it just becomes another piece of coal."

He brings up the phrase "Show me the money," a popular tag line in the 1996 film, Jerry Maguire. It had the momentum behind it, but no one capitalized on it, he said. It's probably still available, he said, but it wouldn't have the same cultural weight now that 'Let's Get Ready to Rumble" does.

Lawyers said there were others: former President Bush's "wouldn't be prudent," noted McCreary. Zielinski cited Steve Martin's extended, "Excuuuse me."

Even if these had been properly executed, "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" would still probably be the top of the heap. "It's probably the most famous phrase said by a human being in history," Buffer said.

Again he says, it's much more than the five words — and much more than a lucky ring announcer. It's also a "grand partnership between two brothers," he said. "I don't think it would have worked with anyone else."

For that reason, it's hard for Bruce Buffer to entertain any ideas about selling the "Let's Get Ready to Rumble" trademark. When asked, he first said he'd only sell it for "millions." And then he said, "I'll entertain that offer when it happens."

"It's hard to put a price on a life's work," he said.