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Ohio State Univ. Sues 'O-H-I-O' T-Shirt Maker, Alleging Infringement

By Daniel Taylor, Esq. on August 04, 2014 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

College football powerhouse Ohio State University has filed a trademark infringement lawsuit over T-shirts that show silhouetted figures forming the letters "O-H-I-O" with their arms.

The Village People-esque flagless semaphore technique featured on Rhode Island-based Teespring Inc.'s T-shirt is a common sight at OSU football games -- so much so that the school had it trademarked in 2012, reports The Columbus Dispatch.

Can you really trademark things like that?

What Can Be Trademarked?

Trademarks are words, names, symbols or devices used in trade with goods to indicate the source of goods in trade and to distinguish them from other goods.

Trademarks can include everything from the distinctive color of your company's packaging to a series of musical notes commonly used in advertising or promoting your product. In the case of Ohio State's successful trademarking of a formation of fans spelling O-H-I-O, the school was able to convince the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office -- the federal agency responsible for approving patents -- that the image identifies the school to consumers.

Registering a Trademark

Although registering a trademark with the USPTO is not required in order to claim rights to a trademark, registering a mark is a requirement for enforcing those rights through a trademark infringement suit such as the one filed by Ohio State University.

College sports programs are increasingly turning to registering trademarks for logos, symbols, colors, and other identifying images in order to prevent bootleg merchandise, as well as assert their rights against other sports programs whose merchandise may be confusingly similar.

In one high-profile case, the University of Southern California and the University of South Carolina squared off in court over the West Coast USC's right to trademark the interlocking "SC" letters used by both teams. The University of California prevailed in 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court declined to hear an appeal of the federal appeals court ruling in its favor.

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