It's A New Orleans Mantra, But Using 'Who Dat' May Cost You

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David J. Phillip

During pro football season, New Orleans becomes " 'Who Dat' Nation." Fans open New Orleans Saints' games with the signature chant and use it to rattle the eardrums of opponents during games.

Since the Saints' Super Bowl win in 2010, the phrase has popped up everywhere, from T-shirts to business names. Even people who don't watch football call themselves "Who Dats." But a messy legal question keeps rearing its head here: Who owns "Who Dat"?

On Saints game day, the square mile around the Superdome is all tailgaters — and they take their "Who Dat" rallying cry very seriously. It's basic vocabulary around here, explains Mike Stieger. "We've been 'who-dattin' the whole time," he says. "We been saying it for years, and, yeah, we own "Dat" — the people of New Orleans, Louisiana."

"Who Dat" Say They Own "Who Dat"

All the tailgaters here agree: New Orleans owns "Who Dat," they say. And they do, of course, have the right to scream it or write it on homemade signs.

What they can't do, says Who Dat, Inc., is sell anything that says "Who Dat."

Who Dat Inc. is brothers Steve and Sal Monistere of San Antonio. The Texans trademarked "Who Dat" in 1983, when they produced a song by the same name featuring Aaron Neville and the Singing Saints.

It was part of an '80s trend of football players singing — remember the Chicago Bears' "Super Bowl Shuffle"?

Five years later, the Saints and the NFL also tried to trademark "Who Dat." And it wasn't that big of a deal — until the Saints made it to Super Bowl in 2010. That's when the NFL started to go after royalties for "Who Dat." Who Dat, Inc. then sued the NFL, saying it claimed the phrase first.

Shana Walton, a professor of language and literature at Nicholls State University in Thibodaux, La., researched the history of the phrase in preparation for the lawsuit.

"We can trace 'Who Dat' all the way back to the 1700s, in newspapers in colonial America," she says, when it was a derogatory way to represent African-American speech. It then became a point of pride, and "Who Dat" became part of high school football chants — across racial lines — as early as the 1960s.

Take a school team called the Lumberjacks, with the chant, "Who dat, who dat gonna beat 'dem Jacks?" Walton says. "You can look back in their old yearbooks and see that big and proud."

There's no doubt, Walton says, that the phrase comes from grassroots culture and is in the public domain.

Lawsuits And Cease And Desist Letters

But because Who Dat, Inc. and the NFL settled out of court, a judge never put that into law. And while the NFL has backed off the issue, Who Dat, Inc. has not. In October, it filed a new lawsuit, this time against two T-shirt makers.

Dinah Payne, a management professor at the University of New Orleans, says the company has to stay in court to show it is serious about its claim.

"If they don't pursue their right to exclusively use that word, then over time they're gonna lose that right," Payne says.

Some businesses do pay royalties to Who Dat, Inc., from a few cents up to thousands of dollars for things like broadcasting the "Who Dat" chant, which the company claims as original lyrics, or printing the phrase on a custom T-shirt. The company sends cease and desist letters to those who don't pay.

After brushes with the trademark claim, Blake Haney, who runs an apparel company called Dirty Coast, no longer carries anything tagged "Who Dat" in his shop.

"Which means we're leaving some money on the table, but it also means that everything we sell that's Saints-oriented is our own creation," he says, like a T-shirt depicting the Superdome as a church, topped with a steeple of the Saints' logo, a fleur-de-lis.

Around New Orleans, just the word "dat" alone is now a thing. You can buy a baby onesie that says "Poo Dat," visit an urban farm called Grow Dat or step up to the We Dat food truck on game day, where Greg Tillery sells shrimp tacos and po-boy sandwiches. How would he feel if he got a letter demanding he change the name of his truck, or pay up?

"They gotta do what they gotta do," he laughs. But, he adds, Saints fans and New Orleanians will always feel they own "Who Dat," no matter who comes calling for a royalty payment.

Copyright 2013 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

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