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What’s in a name? Houston area law schools now in a trademark dispute

June 29, 2016

On June 22, 2016, South Texas College of Law announced that it was changing the name of the school to “Houston College of Law.” The school also introduced a new color scheme on its website[1] that is predominantly red and white, with shades of gray. As a bookend to the public announcement, it appears the school also filed a trademark application for the word and design mark HOUSTON COLLEGE OF LAW EST. 1923, with a filing date of May 12, 2016.[2] The trademark application also asserts a date of first use of April 6, 2016.

Name changes can be a good thing. Typically. A rebranding can assist in drawing attention to a stale mark or product. It can attract new customers. It can introduce a product or service into a previously under-represented industry. In essence, this is what trademarks are for: to assist the consuming public in identifying the source of goods and services. The only problem is that “Houston College of Law” looks and sounds like “University of Houston Law Center,” which has been in existence in the same geographical area since approximately 1947.[3] The University of Houston has also embraced a red-and-white color scheme since the late 1930s.

As you can imagine, this name change and color scheme did not sit well with the other local law school. On Monday, June 27, 2016, the Board of Regents of the University of Houston System filed a lawsuit in the Southern District of Texas, Houston Division against South Texas College of Law.[4] The Complaint asserts causes of action for trademark infringement, unfair competition and false designation of origin, false advertising, dilution by blurring or tarnishment, and related state and common law claims.[5]

Now that this matter is in the court system, what can be expected and how should this play out?

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Why the NFL does not want you to say “S— B—”… and how the NFL may be wrong

On Sunday, February 7, 2016, the Carolina Panthers® and Denver Broncos® will take the field for the kickoff of Super Bowl® 50. This is the annual showcase game for the National Football League®. In the interim time, the NFL® has assembled an army of lawyers that are ready, willing and able to send a bevy of cease-and-desist letters to any individual or entity that has the audacity to use certain terms or phrases that the league perceives might dilute or infringe famous trademarks that belong to the NFL.[1]

The Super Bowl is practically an American institution, now in its fiftieth year. Many groups contend that the Monday after the Super Bowl should be a national holiday. In fact, a formal petition was once initiated for that very purpose. As a result, you will see and hear numerous advertisements leading up to the Super Bowl promoting numerous goods and services. It is kind of a big deal. What you are unlikely to hear in these advertisements, however, is quite noteworthy. You will rarely hear any advertisement use the term SUPER BOWL.

Why are we reduced to using nebulous terms like “The Big Game” or “The Pro Football Championship” to identify and describe a game? Why is the NFL so trigger-happy in seeking to stop all uses of “Super Bowl” that are not made by direct sponsors of the league or the television broadcast? What is the legal basis for the NFL’s position on this matter? Is it possible that the NFL is wrong? (Spoiler alert: YES!)

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NFL Football returns to Los Angeles – and the trademarks are coming with it

On January 12, 2016, the National Football League approved by near unanimous vote the re-location of the Rams from St. Louis to Los Angeles. Los Angeles has not been home to an NFL team since the Rams and the Raiders both left after the 1994 season. In addition to the Rams, the San Diego Chargers also have the option to move to Los Angeles before the 2017 season, which seems likely. The Los Angeles Rams are back in business.[1] NFL Hall of Fame running back (and fellow SMU Mustang!) Eric Dickerson seems pleased with the news:

Not surprisingly, the Los Angeles Rams Football Company, by way of the St. Louis Rams LLC, has already taken steps to ensure that the LOS ANGELES RAMS trademark rights are active and the federal registration has been renewed.[2]  But there remain other trademark issues that arise from this news of relocation.

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Athlete Trademarks are Getting Absurd

Two trademark applications have recently caught my attention.  Both involve NFL players and their offhand comments that have become accidental catchphrases.  I highlight these two as a means of underscoring the recent trend among athletes to seek to register trademarks of all kinds.  Most of these marks, unfortunately, have limited commercial value and a short lifespan for relevance among the consuming public.  While I am a champion for protecting your trademark rights, these two particular applications strike me as nothing short of absurd.

Please allow me to explain…

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The First Amendment Embraces “Disparaging” Trademarks

On December 22, 2015, The United States Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit reversed decades of legal precedent and held that the United States Patent and Trademark Office cannot refuse to grant federal registrations for trademarks on the basis of the mark being “disparaging.”[1]  This standard of refusing registrations for “disparaging” marks is derived from Section 2(a) of the Lanham Act, the federal statute that governs U.S. trademark law.[2]

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