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Copycat logos are pitting high schools and colleges in a trademark turf war

By James Wagner
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, October 21, 2010; 11:39 PM

During the 2008 presidential campaign, CNN anchorman Lou Dobbs hosted his evening broadcast from the gymnasium of Freedom-South Riding High in Loudoun County. Painted on the wall was the school's official logo - a black and gold eagle with wings spread open and flashing its talons.

One of those watching on TV was a graduate of Georgia Southern University who recognized that the eagle was the same one used by the university's athletic department and called the school to alert it.

When word reached Lee Davis, Georgia Southern's associate vice president for legal affairs, he printed a copy of Freedom-South Riding's logo from its Web site and compared it to the university's design. "I blew them up and put them on top of each other," Davis recalled. "And no question it was a tracing."

Davis contacted the three-year-old high school and demanded that it stop using the eagle. Calling it "an inadvertent error," Freedom-South Riding has since removed the logo from team uniforms, helmets and other gear. Freedom paid Georgia Southern $1 for the use of the eagle for 10 years on items that were too expensive to immediately replace, such as the gym's wall and floor, according to school officials.

What Freedom-South Riding had touched on was a barely remarked upon trademark dispute that is increasingly pitting high schools against universities across the country.

High schools have for years copied the logos of big-time universities and professional teams, or turned to them for inspiration. But as those insignias have become more valuable through licensing for merchandise and apparel - deals that can be worth millions to a university - many campuses have become more vigilant in protecting them.

"It's become more of an issue," said Gabriel Feldman, director of the Sports Law Program at Tulane University. "And I think part of it is because the value of these trademarks is so high that these licenses and universities are making money from their marks."

While there is no count of how many high schools have infringed on university trademarks, a casual look at any region's high schools reveals a legion of miniature copycats, most visibly evident on the helmets of their football teams.

The W.T. Woodson Cavaliers in Fairfax County, for example, use a variation of the University of Virginia's distincitive cross-swords logo on their helmets and uniforms, replacing a "W" for Virginia's "V." Wilson High in the District uses a logo that resembles Clemson University's paw symbol, but in green and white rather than Clemson's orange and white. In Prince George's County, Potomac High modeled its football helmet on that of the University of Michigan's Wolverines, in Michigan's maize and blue.

None of the three schools has asked for permission to use the insignias, and so far none has faced any challenges for it.

That wasn't the case with Centreville High. When it was caught using the bobcat design of Ohio University on its apparel six years ago, officials from the Fairfax County school joined a program run by Kansas State that allows high schools to borrow KSU's "powercat" logo without fear of trademark infrigement. All Centreville needed was to pay the school $1 every two years.

"We did it officially because, God forbid, we do something, some alumni sees something and some attorney sends us a cease-and-desist letter," said Jimmy Sanabria, Centreville's athletic director.

Even this agreement has its limitations. Centreville is allowed to use the Kansas State logo on uniforms, signs and stationary, according to Tami Breymeyer, the university's director of licensing. But if it wants to put the Powercat on T-shirts or apparel for sale it has to use one of the university's 400 licensed vendors, who pay Kansas State a 10 percent royalty for the orders.

And there's one additional restriction. Centreville - along with 94 schools in 28 states that have a similar arrangement - is free to use whatever colors it wants with the logo, even an exact replica of Kansas State's purple and silver, with two exceptions. It is banned from using red and blue, the colors of Kansas, KSU's in-state rival.

Other universities have been less willing to allow any use of their insignias. Wisconsin, Florida and Florida State, for example, have cracked down heavily in recent years on the borrowing of their logos, even if high schools have changed the colors.

Woodlands High in Texas used Wisconsin's "motion W" logo on its team uniforms until university officials caught wind of it and had the school remove the insignia in 2007, said Cindy Van Matre, Wisconsin's licensing director. The high school eventually created its own logo. In all, Wisconsin has asked nearly 40 schools in over two dozen states to stop using its logo and phase out its use on Web sites, uniforms and elsewhere. The list includes Westfield High in Chantilly.

Since last fall, the University of Florida has asked two high schools in the state, Palm Beach Gardens and Glades Day - and at least one school in Mississippi - to stop using the Gators logo and phase out its uses on uniforms and gym floors, according to Janine Sikes, the university's director of public affairs.

In August, Florida State asked Southeast High School in Bradenton, Fla., to stop using its Seminoles nickname, and the spear and Indian head logos, and agree to phase out their use, said John Bowen, an attorney with the Manatee County schools system. The school has used versions of Florida State's logos, though slightly altered and in the orange and blue colors of rival Florida, for more than 30 years.

It would cost Southeast up to $100,000 to replace the logo on its uniforms, gym floor and elsewhere, Bowen said. Florida State offered the school use of the logo for five years, at a cost of $1. The offer is being considered by the county school system, Bowen said.

Universities say they must protect their logos, often the most visible symbols of their brands, and to avoid confusion with any other copies. Under trademark law, logo holders such as universities have an obligation to police their marks. If not, they essentially lose the right to stop unauthorized uses.

"The use of a mark can be approved but it has to be licensed," said Betty Steffens, Florida State's general counsel. "That way we can protect the trademarks of the university and the trademarks can be honored the way they should be honored."

Even so, universities run the risk of a public relations backlash when they crack down on high schools, many of which copy their logos because they want to associate themselves with a nationally known athletic powerhouse, not because it is prohibitively expensive to design a logo on their own.

"I think it makes them look bad, that they would feel threatened by a high school," Bowen said. "We're not competing with them. We're not taking anything from them. It's a benefit to them." He added that, as he sees it, having a high school use its nickname and insignia is a marketing bonus for an in-state school such as Florida State.

"These kids are Seminoles for four years and they want to continue that for another four years at Florida State," he said.

Many high schools also borrow the popular logos of the NFL's 32 franchises, although this has not caused any problems. Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman, said high school and youth football teams are allowed to freely use NFL insignias. "It is inspirational for young players to play football under the same name as NFL teams," he said.

The approach varies among universities and colleges, and for those that want to protect their logos, the Internet, along with the increasing number of high school football games broadcast on television, are making their job easier.

The University of Virginia, which says it has yet to pursue action against high schools, acknowledges it routinely checks on schools it knows have similar nicknames and logos. Alumni also report anything they notice.

But even then, there is no way to fully protect a brand.

"It's difficult to guard," said Todd Goodale, who oversees Virginia's licensing program. "Certainly I can understand that as the University of Virginia we have a popular brand and carries some weight across high schools in Virginia. That's why we pay particular attention that they are not using the Cavalier marks or crossed swords without capitalizing on the university's brand."