Wednesday, May 13, 2015
More on the Lady Vols and Trademark Abandonment
As some readers may recall, I posted twice back in November about The University of Tennessee, Knoxville's decision to drop the Lady Vols moniker and mark from all women's sports teams at UTK other than women's basketball. The first post primarily wondered about university counsel's consideration of trademark abandonment in the rebranding effort. The second post unpacked some additional issues raised by the first post and addressed some readers' and friends' concerns about my stance opposing the rebranding.
Interestingly, adverse reactions to the branding change, which is effective on July 1 (the beginning of the new academic year at UTK), have not died down since those original posts. Letters from concerned citizens have been published in the local paper, and the paper even published a recent news article documenting some of the back-and-forth between Lady Vol fans and the campus administration. [Ed. Note: this article may be protected by a firewall.] I have followed all of this with some interest.
Honestly, part of me just cannot wait for the university to drop the mark altogether so that I can start using it to mass merchandise retro Lady Vols t-shirts, hats, and other merch. Entrepreneurial pipe dream? Maybe. But it seems like a great idea, yes?
And there's a case involving Macy's that I will be following to help me to assess whether and, if so, when to launch my venture. The case, covered in an article in the New York Law Journal on Monday, involves Macy's and its disuse/limited use of department store names forsaken as a result of its own rebranding efforts. You know the names well if you're a person of a certain age--A&S, Filene's, Marshall Fields, Stern's, etc. (I shopped at all of them. Eek!) The defendant in the action, Strategic Marks, claims the right to use these so-called "heritage marks" for bricks-and-mortar and online shopping services. Apparently, Strategic Brands filed intent to use applications and statements of use with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. In the case, Macy's challenges Strategic Marks's right to use the heritage marks--asserting, among other things, that the marks have not, in fact, been abandoned (given that Macy's still uses them on the occasional plaque, t-shirt, and tote bag.) The case had been scheduled for trial earlier this year, but the trial date was postponed to reflect new claims by Macy's regarding Strategic Marks's use of additional marks earlier registered by Macy's.
The case apparently raises some interesting trademark abandonment issues that also may apply to the Lady Vols rebranding effort as time moves on. Among them: the length of time a mark must be in disuse before it is considered abandoned (although a presumption of abandonment apparently arises after non-use for three consecutive years), the types of behavior that constitute an intent not to resume use of a mark, and the effect of residual goodwill associated with a mark on claims of abandonment. Although Macy's and Strategic Marks do not agree on the facts of the case, it is the law as applied to those facts that I am most interested in knowing.
Of course, since UTK is keeping the Lady Vols name for the women's basketball team, at least for now, the trademark abandonment issue is not ripe. Accordingly, I cannot yet think about quitting my day job to promote the Lady Vols brand to all the passionate UTK women's sports fans out there. But I am keeping my entrepreneurial eyes on this issue. If they do away with tenure in The University of Tennessee system, for example, I may need an opportunity like this . . . !