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