Defending Team Trademarks

By Edwin C. Darden

The telephone rings. It’s the lawyer for Integrity University -- and she’s not happy. Counsel points to your school district’s sports team -- the name, the colors, the insignia, the mascot -- and chronicles all the similarities between your high school branding and I-U athletics. The attorney ends the conversation with this ominous warning: We have intellectual property law on our side.

While this tale is fictitious and designed to make a legal point, the scenario can become all too real for school districts that forget that trademark law is a sharp and effective saber that can stab as well as rattle.

With profit in mind, universities, corporations, and individuals stake their claim to an image or a color combination or other distinctive features that become identified with a specific college or a company’s products. Then, university and corporate officials aggressively defend against encroachment -- whether real or perceived.

School districts can easily get caught on the business end of sharp elbows, finding themselves in need of an attorney to prevent steep financial losses, severe disruptions, and damage to their reputation. This column is the second of a two-part series on intellectual property law. While Part I, in April, discussed copyrights and compliance, this installment examines trademarks.

The two are easily confused. Copyright applies to original works of music, art, drama, and literature and grants the owner exclusive rights to reproduce the work. An outsider can gain permission to use the creation, usually for a fee. Yet, there is an exception called “fair use” that allows school districts to use copyrighted materials cost-free for learning purposes.

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