Copycat logos are pitting high schools and colleges in a trademark turf war
By James Wagner
During the 2008 presidential campaign, CNN anchorman Lou Dobbs hosted his evening broadcast from the gymnasium of Freedom-South Riding High in
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,
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
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
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
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
Other universities have been less willing to allow any use of their insignias.
Woodlands High in
Since last fall, the
It would cost Southeast up to $100,000 to replace the logo on its uniforms, gym floor and elsewhere, 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,
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
"These kids are Seminoles for four years and they want to continue that for another four years at
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.
But even then, there is no way to fully protect a brand.
"It's difficult to guard," said Todd Goodale, who oversees