Monday, July 08, 2002

Protecting their names, budgets


Schools get tough on copyrights

By Dan Horn, dhorn@enquirer.com
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        Colleges and universities are fighting harder than ever to protect their good names, not to mention their colorful logos and snarling, cartoon-character mascots.

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Adam Winget of Lima and his mom Betsy look over Bearcat merchandise at the UC book store.
(Greg Ruffing photo)
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        The battle is over trademark infringement, an old problem that has grown dramatically in the high-tech age.

        In the past decade, counterfeiters armed with computers and inexpensive equipment have improved their ability to quickly produce and sell unlicensed merchandise.

        They now use Bearcats and Wildcats and Redhawks on everything from basketball jerseys to Internet Web sites. Ohio State officials recently learned that a Web address bearing the school name led unsuspecting sports fans to a porn site.

        “It's the wild, wild West,” said Rick Van Brimmer, director of trademark and licensing services at Ohio State. “I'm sure you could go online today and find an illegal use of the Ohio State name.”

        Increasingly, schools are fighting back.

        Miami University sued in federal court last month to stop a book store from using its Redhawk trademarks in advertising materials. And the University of Cincinnati threatened legal action last year to stop the manufacture of high school uniforms with a Bearcat logo similar to its own.

        Some schools have even joined forces with professional sports teams to track down trademark violators.

        The aggressiveness is in response to what colleges and universities see as a growing threat to their budgets and their reputations.

        School officials estimate that counterfeiters cost U.S. colleges millions of dollars in licensing fees each year, depriving them of money that would otherwise go toward student scholarships or capital improvements.

        They also worry about the less tangible — but potentially more serious — damage that the illegal use of school trademarks could do to their good names.

        “These marks are identifiers. If they are handled right, they demonstrate who you are,” said UC spokesman Greg Hand. “If anybody can use them, then you lose the ability to tell your story.”

        Colleges and universities rely on trademarks to protect their names and logos in the same way that big corporations rely on them to protect the names of products.

        Under the law, Miami's Redhawk logo is no different than Diet Coke, the Big Mac and Crest toothpaste.

        To keep their trademarks, schools are required to protect them. That means they must try, as best they can, to monitor every use of their names and logos.

        A few years ago, Mr. Hand said, UC went so far as to grant a license to the family of an alumnus who wanted to use the school seal on his gravestone.

        “It seems like overkill, but unless you enforce the usage, you lose the trademark,” Mr. Hand said. “We can't afford to lose a couple hundred thousand dollars a year.”

        Fees from the sale of licensed products generate about $2.5 million a year for a Big Ten school like Ohio State, about $400,000 for UC and $120,000 for Miami.

        While that's small change for schools with multimillion-dollar budgets, the money often represents a major source of funding for scholarships.

        “It's not just the university making money,” said Paul Allen, director of business services at Miami. “It's going to good purposes.”

A growing problem

        Most trademark violations are honest mistakes: A sports fan sets up a Web site using his favorite team's name, or a youth basketball league designs uniforms bearing a popular logo.

        A dedicated UC fan calling herself “Bearcat Niki,” used to sell photos showing the school logo painted on her bare midriff.

        Authorities say 90 percent of violators, including Niki, stop after they are told of the problem, either by phone or in a more formal “cease and desist” letter.

        But the most determined counterfeiters are rarely swayed by warnings. They typically show up outside stadiums and arenas on game days with boxes filled with unlicensed T-shirts, jerseys and caps.

        “Here's how a counterfeiter thinks: How can I make the most amount of money, with the least amount of effort, in the shortest amount of time?” Mr. Van Brimmer said. “Any place a product is sold, there is the potential for counterfeiting.”

        Many counterfeiters now realize that potential on the Internet, where they can reach an audience far larger than the one outside a football stadium.

        Web sites offer a wide range of counterfeit products, from baseball caps to Russian dolls made in the image of Ohio State quarterbacks.

        Other sites use Web addresses with school names to lure fans to sites that sell tires or adult movies. The problem, known as “cybersquatting,” is rampant.

        A 1999 study by the American Council on Education (ACE) found that school names turned up repeatedly in Web addresses that had no connection to the school. The Web address yaleuniversity.com, for example, connects to a candy wholesaler.

        “It is a growing problem,” said Sheldon Steinbach, general counsel for the ACE. “More schools than you can imagine are dealing with trademark infringement.”

Schools get tough

        To combat the problem, schools have stepped up enforcement.

        Some 200 colleges and universities are now members of the Coalition to Advance the Protection of Sports logos. The group, known as CAPS, was founded in 1992 by the NCAA and several pro sports leagues.

        To date, CAPS has seized $175 million in merchandise and has been involved in more than 2,300 arrests.

        “It's easy for infringers to get product and to get into the business,” said Bruce Siegal, general counsel for Collegiate Licensing Co. “But they are finding there are more severe consequences than there were 10 years ago.”

        Although schools say they have no choice but to become more aggressive, some have been accused of going too far.

        John DuBois said Miami was too harsh when it sued his DuBois book store last month. The lawsuit accuses the store of setting up a Web site called “redhawkgear.com” and of using the school name in advertising materials.

        Mr. DuBois said all of the Miami products he sells are licensed and legal. To sell those products, he said, he has used the Miami name.

        “I don't think I have a God-given right to use the marks, but it makes common sense,” Mr. DuBois said. “You've got a business that is serving the students and generating a lot of revenue for the university in licensing fees.”

        Miami officials say the lawsuit protects the school's interests.

        “Any time a trademark is violated, you risk losing the right to protect the trademark elsewhere,” Mr. Allen said.

        Sometimes, schools fight each other over trademarks. A few years ago, Ohio University notified Ohio State that it had registered “Ohio” as a trademark.

        The dispute was later worked out, but for awhile it looked as if Ohio State might be barred from using “Ohio” on cheerleader uniforms or in the marching band's famous “script Ohio” formation.

        For Ohio University, the point was to protect the Ohio name, just as corporations protect product names. Mr. Van Brimmer said many schools are now embracing the “corporate model” and are fighting much harder to protect their “assets.”

        “They think about their assets as a corporation would,” Mr. Van Brimmer said. “And what is more valuable than a university's name?”

       



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