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Logo controversy

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Tom Bergeron

Rivals High Senior Editor

 

Principal Mike Kotkin was just a few months into his job at Lake Mary (Fla.) High School last fall when he got a phone call that he thought was a pretty good prank.

 

The voice on the other end of the line was telling him that the Rams logo his school was using - the one that could be found everywhere from the football stadium to the school stationery - was infringing upon a registered trademark and would have to be removed. Immediately.

 

"I thought it was a joke," he said of the mid-November call. "It wasn't."

 

It was the Chrysler Corporation. And it was not happy that the Ram logo the school was using - and had been using for many years - was the exact logo Chrysler uses for its Dodge Ram trucks.

 

The call began a series of communication between the school and the company that ran from productive to unpleasant. Both sides argued their points.

 

 

 

Chrysler asked Lake Mary (Fla.) High School to stop using this as their Rams logo, saying it was protected by copyright.

The school said it meant no harm, wasn't profiting from the logo or defaming it, and - mostly - certainly didn't have the money it would take in these cash-strapped times to replace a logo that had become ubiquitous with the school.

 

The company countered it has to aggressively protect its logo in all instances to set legal precedent. And more so, allowing anyone to use it - even a school in an instance where it would appear to be a positive - would be giving up control of its biggest asset: Its brand.

 

Conversations such as these are happening at more and more high schools.

 

While high school athletic teams have long borrowed the logos of college or professional teams for decades - who doesn't remember a school with helmets that look awfully familiar to a college or pro team? - enforcement of registered trademarks is a rather new phenomenon.

 

Some say it's a 21st-century marketing emphasis on "the brand." Others think it's in direct relation to the rise of the Internet and websites, which allow everyone to see what anyone else in the world is doing - or using - in a simple search.

 

But here are just a few recent examples:

 

Harrisburg High School in Sioux Falls, S.D., was told by the University of Missouri that its Tiger logo was too similar to the one Mizzou had trademarked.

 

Whitmer High School in Toledo, Ohio, found out the Panther logo it sewed into its new artificial surface was in violation of a trademark of the University of Pittsburgh.

 

Gardner Edgerton High School in Gardner, Kan., learned the horns logo it was considering for its new helmet would not sit well with the University of Texas.

 

Southeast High School in Brandeton, Fla., was told just last week by Florida State that it needed to stop using the Seminole logo immediately - this, despite the fact, the high school has been doing so for nearly four decades and Florida State often had been on campus to recruit its players. In fact, one of Florida State's all-time greats, Peter Warrick, not only is an alum but also currently serves as an assistant coach on the team.

In every instance, there is little argument that the high schools had committed a trademark violation.

 

The question is, why would universities or corporations fight to force them to change them, seemingly giving up free publicity while coming across as the bad guy or the big bully?

 

"It's David vs. Goliath," Chrysler spokesman Mike Palese said. "That's not a good thing when you're Goliath."

 

 

******

Anthony R. Caruso, a prominent sports and entertainment trademark lawyer with Sills Cummis & Gross in New York and New Jersey, can only shake his head in disbelief, wondering how this problem gets to this point.

 

"It's a very lively issue," he said. "But there's a legal approach and a humanistic approach to solving it."

 

Caruso - like everyone else interviewed for this story - does not dispute that the high schools are in violation.

 

"Legally, the colleges are right and the high schools are wrong," he said. "It's a registered trademark."

 

 

Photo courtesy The Toledo Blade

 

The University of Pittsburgh objected to Whitmer High School in Toledo, Ohio, using this logo on its new football field. Whitmer has agreed to remove the logo the next time it resurfaces the field.

And for legal reasons, colleges and corporations must enforce their copyright.

 

"They can't pick and choose which battles they fight," he said. "They must consistently protect their logo even if the high school is not profiting from using the logo. The problem comes when they go up against someone who is profiting from their logo. They could claim the college doesn't protect its logo."

 

The solution, Caruso said, is easy.

 

He calls it the humanistic approach - and it's what he teaches his students when he serves as an adjunct professor for sports and business law at New York University.

 

Caruso said colleges should sign an agreement with the schools, acknowledging that they are using the logo, promising not to use it in any derogatory way, and agreeing to pay a nominal fee - say $1 a year - for the right.

 

This way, Caruso said, the college or corporation is protecting is logo and doing right by the kids at the school. Not to mention getting some positive brand exposure. And saving on unnecessary legal fees.

 

Too often, he said, lawyers are only concerned about the law.

 

"Rather than doing the right thing, they do the easier thing," he said. "It's a function of lawyers not having enough practical business experience.

 

"It becomes a win-lose rather than a win-win."

 

 

******

Here's an interesting aspect of the situation: These examples have little to do with money.

 

The high schools are not profiting from using the logos illegally. The colleges or corporations aren't looking to get a cut of what little money is being generated perhaps through the sale of a shirt, jersey, foam finger or helmet.

 

Quite frankly, there isn't much money to be found.

 

Darren Rovell, who covers sports business for CNBC, breaks it down:

 

"A school gets 8 percent of the gross on a licensed product," he said. "Let's say you sold a helmet and the gross is 50 dollars; that means each helmet is worth four dollars.

 

"That's hardly enough to make it worth it, especially when you are engendering hatred for your brand. It just doesn't make sense."

 

 

Courtesy Gardner Edgerton High School

 

The University of Texas was not comfortable with Gardner Edgerton High School in Kansas using its Longhorn logo - it feels overuse may dilute the brand.

Craig Westemeier, an assistant athletic director at the University of Texas in charge of trademark and licensing, said it's not that simple. And that money isn't the issue.

 

"We don't approach these situations as a financial windfall," he said. "We're not pursuing this and asking them to pay us a bunch of money. We're out protecting our brand."

 

It's confusion, not cash, that's driving this.

 

"Part of our philosophy is that people could be confused that there is some sort relationship, endorsement or sponsorship - whether it's a high school or a car dealership," Westemeier said. "We think it's important to make sure it's clear."

 

But protecting the brand, he said, means protecting how often and where it is seen. Showing up miles away from the campus - Gardner Edgerton High is more than 600 miles away from the UT campus - isn't a bad thing. But it isn't necessarily a good thing, either.

 

"We need to make sure it's not diluted," he said. "It comes back to the connection the consumer has - and if we don't have any connection (with that school), why would we want to put our brand on it?

 

"We want to protect (our logo) and not allow it to be so prevalent that it loses the cache that it has built up in the last 100 years."

 

Chrysler's Palese agreed it's principle, not profits - and is annoyed when some suggest that since the company took money from the government, copyright rules shouldn't apply.

 

"They say, 'You took tax money, how can you be angry to the school?' almost as if we have a responsibility to give everything away," he said. "We make the argument we have more of a need to protect (our brand) as we become viable again.

 

"Just because we took government money to help us doesn't mean we suddenly become a charitable institution."

 

 

******

Solutions can be easy.

 

Harrisburg High stopped using Missouri's Tiger logo and came up with a new one.

 

Whitmer came up with a new logo, too - and agreed to replace Pitt's Panther logo as soon as it made sense to do so in the course of normal maintenance. The agreement, said Washington Local Schools business manager Dave Brinkman, meant the district would not have to immediately replace the artificial surface on its football field - a surface it just spent $600,000 to install.

 

Gardner Edgerton High and Texas also parted ways amicably, according to Bill Miller, the director of operations for that school district.

 

"We said we can go to war with their bankroll or make some adjustments," Miller said.

 

Miller said it was an easy choice.

 

"We're not promoting the Longhorns," he said. "We're promoting Gardner Edgerton High School."

 

 

Eric Adelson/Yahoo! Sports

 

The sign says 'Proud Partner' - but the truth is, those associated with Lake Mary are anything but.

But that's just what Lake Mary thought it was doing with the Ram logo.

 

The school acknowledged it was improperly using the logo - "A bad decision made 5, 6, 7 years ago," Kotkin said - but reversing that decision wasn't easy. Simply put, there are Rams everywhere.

 

"You don't realize how much is used until you start looking," Kotkin said.

 

Negotiations with Chrysler did not go amiably.

 

The school had letter-writing campaigns and started a website; Chrysler said it was never sure who it should be dealing with - the school, the school board, the local district.

 

In the end, it was decided the school would replace as many logos as quickly as it could. Until it was done, a sign that said, "Proud Partner of Chrysler" must accompany any illegal use of the Ram image.

 

But that's one of the bigger issues. The school is anything but proud of its association with Chrysler - and feels the company missed out.

 

"We have 2,600 students who are future consumers," Kotkin said. "I guarantee you they turned away future consumers. They missed an opportunity."

 

Chrysler feels the school missed an opportunity, too.

 

"We talked to them about this being a teaching moment, but they didn't see it that way," Palese said.

 

"I will argue that, because you are a school, there ought to be more of a respect to follow the law. What lesson are you teaching the kids that you don't respect the law and trademark, especially in this era of the Internet and piracy?"

 

 

******

The issue in Lake Mary is almost over.

 

The school has developed a new logo - with the help of an outside company that worked for free - and hopes to have all of the old Ram logos replaced by the end of the year.

 

"It can't happen soon enough," Kotkin said.

 

The story, however, appears to just be getting started - and not just because Kotkin said he did an Internet search and found roughly two dozen other schools he felt were using the same Ram logo.

 

No, the Battle Of The Brand appears to be just warming up.

 

Caruso said the schools ultimately are responsible.

 

"These high schools have access to Board of Education attorneys," he said. "They should know they don't have the right to use that. And while it may not be damaging to the brand, they shouldn't be doing it."

 

Rovell calls it one of his favorite continuing episodes - and blames the colleges for the issue.

 

"These (colleges) are having problems with (NCAA) compliance and they're going after high schools for ripping them off?" he asked. "It's certainly not confusion of who they are. Do people really think Westlake High is the Wisconsin Badgers?

 

"I think it's the comical story of the year."

 

 

 

If you can't beat them, join them: Want to use the logo and be associated with Byrnes High in Duncan, S.C.? You can, but only after you pay the school district - which is getting a trademark.

The next installment in the great logo debate may have a twist ending.

 

Byrnes High in Duncan, S.C., is one of the top high school football programs in the nation. It has won six state titles this decade and started this season in the RivalsHigh Top 100 national football rankings.

 

Last fall, it took the copyright issue into its own hands - and is almost done with the roughly year-long procedure to get a federal trademark on its logo.

 

Why did it do so? It was tired of local businesses associating themselves with the school's success for free.

 

"There were tags, license plates, T-shirts - all around the community you'd see it," Spartanburg (S.C.) District 5 athletic director Bobby Bentley said. "The kids were not getting the benefit of their work."

 

The copyright cost about $1,000, Bentley said. He said the district will sell the licensing of the logo for $250, plus 6-8 percent of any product sold with it. He said he's already had six businesses ask about it.

 

Bentley said he's willing to let anyone use the Byrnes logo and be associated with one of the top high school football programs in the state - just as long as they pay to use the logo.

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Well now, what is a company, pro team, college adopts a new logo that is very similar to one that has been used by a high school for years?

 

The Carolina Panthers adopted panther logo that were very similar to the Panthers used by my high school for many years prior to when that team formed.

Should they sue their asses?

 

My Kiwanis Club just paid about 20K for a new Panther statue that has been in keeping with the logos used by school for the last 50 years. If the Carolina Panthers want to make a deal of it, we gonna dance.

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