University Trademark Battles: Impact & Controversy

University Trademark Battles
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Protecting Trademarks: University Enforcement Trends

In recent months, a surge of trademark enforcement actions by educational institutions across the United States has drawn widespread attention. From the U.S. Naval Institute’s engagement with Nike over logo usage to the disputes between Texas A&M and a Washington State-based soap company, instances of trademark battles have been prevalent. Notably, Ohio State University’s opposition to the University of Oklahoma’s trademark application further highlights this trend.

Debating Trademark Bullying vs. Protection

Critics label these actions as “trademark bullying,” accusing powerful university interests of hindering small businesses. However, according to trademark attorney Josh Gerben, not all enforcement constitutes bullying. He asserts that universities hold substantial value in their trademarks and have a legal obligation to safeguard them. Nevertheless, the approach to enforcement sometimes creates a perception of bullying, impacting the university’s image.

Historical Perspective on University Trademark Policing

Contrary to recent portrayals, Gerben notes that university trademark enforcement has been consistently high over the years. He acknowledges a possible increase in visibility due to the proliferation of online marketplaces, making it easier for unwitting individuals to inadvertently infringe trademarks.

Beyond Apparel: Diverse Targets of Enforcement

While clothing items like hats and shirts are common targets, universities extend enforcement to various goods. Gerben cites instances like the University of Alabama’s cease-and-desist letter to a bakery for using their logo on baked goods. This exemplifies the delicate balance universities must maintain in protecting their trademarks without stifling small local businesses.

Nuanced Approaches to Enforcement

Gerben suggests a middle ground, proposing that universities engage in licensing discussions with small businesses to permit the use of logos for a nominal fee. Such agreements would safeguard the trademark while supporting local enterprises. However, legal terms should ensure reasonable limits on the business’s profits from trademark use.

Noteworthy Examples: Varied Approaches by Universities

Certain universities, like Duke University, stand out for their extensive trademark enforcement efforts, filing numerous motions to oppose or limit trademark applications. Gerben speculates on factors driving such disparities in enforcement between institutions, emphasizing the influence of a university’s name recognition and sports programs.

Impact of Sporting Success on Trademark Actions

The link between a university’s sports achievements and trademark applications is evident, as seen in UMBC’s trademark filings following their historic NCAA victory. This correlation suggests that sporting triumphs often motivate trademark-related actions by universities.

By understanding the nuances and motivations behind these trademark enforcement efforts, it becomes evident that while protection is crucial, a balanced approach is necessary to avoid negatively impacting smaller businesses within communities.