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During pro football season, New Orleans becomes the Who Dat Nation. The Who Dat chant opens Saints games and rattles the eardrums of opponents when fans go wild in the Superdome. Since the Saints' Super Bowl win in 2010, the phrase has popped up everywhere, from t-shirts to business names. Even people who never watch football call themselves Who Dats. But as Eve Troeh of member station WWNO reports, a messy legal question keeps rearing its head. Who owns Who Dat?

EVE TROEH, BYLINE: On Saints game day, the square mile around the Superdome is all tailgaters and their rallying cry.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: Who dat. Who dat.

TROEH: They take this chant as seriously as they take their food.

MIKE STIEGER: We got some barbecued shrimp, barbecued crab. We actually ate buffalo burgers today.

TROEH: Mike Stieger explains Who Dat is basic vocabulary.

STIEGER: We've been who-datting the whole time. We been saying it for years and, yeah, we own dat, the people of New Orleans, Louisiana.

TROEH: We own dat, that's what all the tailgaters here said. And they do have the right to scream it or write it on a homemade sign. What they can't do, says Who Dat Incorporated, is sell anything that says Who Dat. Who Dat Inc. is brothers Steve and Sal Monistere of San Antonio, Texas. They trademarked Who Dat in 1983, when they produced a song...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN")

AARON NEVILLE: (Singing) Oh, when the saints go marching in.

TROEH: ...featuring Aaron Neville and the Singing Saints.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WHEN THE SAINTS GO MARCHING IN")

SINGING SAINTS: Who dat say say they going to beat dem saints? Who dat? Who dat?

TROEH: 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. It wasn't that big of a deal until the Saints made it to Super Bowl in 2010. The NFL started to go after royalties for Who Dat. Who Dat Inc. then sued the NFL, saying, hey, we claimed it first. Shana Walton is a professor of language and literature at Nicholls State University. She researched Who Dat for the court in preparation for the lawsuit.

SHANA WALTON: We can trace Who Dat all the way back to the 1700s in newspapers in colonial America.

TROEH: It was a derogatory way to represent African-American speech, she says. Then it became a point of pride. As early as the 1960s, Who Dat became part of high school football chants, across racial lines. Take a team called the Lumberjacks.

WALTON: Who dat, who dat going to beat them Jacks? You can look back in their old yearbooks and see that big and proud.

TROEH: There's no doubt the phrase comes from grassroots culture, she says, and it's in the public domain. But a judge never put that into law because Who Dat Inc. and the NFL settled out of court. The NFL has backed off the issue but Who Dat Inc. hasn't. Last month it filed a new lawsuit against two T-shirt makers. University of New Orleans management professor Dinah Payne says they have to stay in court to show they're serious.

DINAH PAYNE: If they don't pursue their right to exclusively use that word, then over time they're going to lose that right.

TROEH: Some businesses do pay royalties to Who Dat Inc., from a few cents to thousands of dollars. The company sends cease and desist letters to those who don't. Around New Orleans, just Dat 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 a food truck on game day called We Dat. 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?

GREG TILLERY: They got to do what they got to do.

(LAUGHTER)

TROEH: He says Saints fans and New Orleanians will always feel they own Who Dat. But if there's money to be made on the phrase, somebody will make dat. For NPR News, I'm Eve Troeh in New Orleans.

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