Intellectual Property

High School Logos vs. Collegiate Enforcers: The Little Infringers that Could?

Friday Night Logos. It's a play on words from the popular book, movie, and television show, Friday Night Lights, which depicts the ups-and-downs of a west Texas, high school football team. It's also a reflection of high school athletics and intellectual property rights. Many high school football teams wear logos that resemble the logos of popular universities, and in these instances, there's a case to be made for trademark infringement.

The problem has been around for some time, and often, enforcement is spotty. Some universities see it as a waste of time to police high schools, many of which earn negligible merchandising income from infringing logos.  The other reason is public relations, the David vs. Goliath perception, that big, cash-rich universities shouldn't step on little, cash-strapped school districts. In the same vein, would you, as a university, want to anger potential enrollees and their parents by forcing them to ditch their beloved high school logo?

Despite a history of lax enforcement, some colleges are now putting high schools on notice that logo infringement will not be tolerated. The new vigilance has a two-fold cause: the ever increasing value of licensed college logos and the greater television exposure given to high school athletics. Of course, at the heart of it all is the potential for a weakened mark, and if high schools are using unauthorized logos, there's the possibility of confusion or dilution.

So, is this a problem worthy of enforcement or should universities let high schools play-on?

In arguing against enforcement, one might argue against confusion in the marketplace, underscoring the difference between a major university and a high school. But is this argument based merely on the David vs. Goliath model? What about large high schools with population numbers rivaling small universities? What about well funded high schools that market their logos as well as, if not better than, some universities?

As for dilution, blurring seems the most obvious of the dilution types, but is there also the possibility of tarnishment? At a fundamental level, there appears to be little harm in high schools copying university logos, but what of the dangers in having a university logo in the hands of adolescents? Whether or not there's actual tarnishment, a university, such as the University of Notre Dame, might perceive reputational harm in having their famous Fighting Irish logo associated with a high school scandal, such as hazing or cheating or juvenile crime. But see, Bd. of Regents v. KST Elec., Ltd., 550 F. Supp. 2d 657 (W.D. Tex. 2008) [enhanced version available to lexis.com subscribers] (rejecting the University of Texas' dilution claim because the University's evidence failed to demonstrate the extremely high level of recognition necessary to show "fame" under the Trademark Dilution Revision Act).

Related Resources:

LaFrance on the Unlicensed Merchandising of University Trademarks

In Bd. of Supervisors for La. State Univ. Agric. & Mech. College v. Smack Apparel Co, 550 F.3d 465 (5th Cir. La. 2008), an apparel company manufactured and sold t-shirts displaying university names, initials, and color schemes. Four universities and . . . .

Cert denied in trademark case involving university logo "SC" - Univ. of S.C. v. Univ. of S. Cal., 367 Fed. Appx. 129 (Fed. Cir. 2010)

The University of Southern California had opposed registration of the University of South Carolina's mark, arguing, among other things, that the registration and mark would create a likelihood of confusion with Southern California's registration, which protected the letters "SC" in standard character form.

15 USCS § 1125.  False designations of origin, false descriptions, and dilution forbidden

Sources:

James Wagner, Copycat logos are pitting high schools and colleges in a trademark turf war, The Washington Post (October 21, 2010), available at http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2010/10/21/AR2010102106526.html

Chris Foreman, High school sports logos run afoul of 'owners', Pittsburgh Tribune-Review (October 10, 2010), available at http://www.pittsburghlive.com/x/pittsburghtrib/news/s_703608.html

Matt Wixon, Colleges, pros rarely cry foul when HS teams lift their logos, The Dallas Morning News (November 4, 2010), available at http://www.dallasnews.com/sharedcontent/dws/spt/highschools/topstories/stories/110410dnspowixon.1eff0fa.html

Adam Clair and Katie Dvorak, High school logo 'confusingly similar' to PSU Lion head, The Daily Collegian (August 30, 2007), available at http://www.collegian.psu.edu/archive/2007/08/30/high_school_logo_confusingly_s.aspx

Dave Weber, Seminole school dodges trademark infringement bullet, Orlando Sentinel (February, 2 2010), available at http://blogs.orlandosentinel.com/news_education_edblog/2010/02/seminole-school-dodges-trademark-infringement-bullet.html

 

  • Maybe rich colleges can simply volunteer to either pay or lend out creative talents to Highschools that use similar/identical logos to design a new unique logo for the highschools?