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Can I Sell Items With College Logos?

The demand for college athletic attire and accessories is high for small business owners and entrepreneurs. Most universities have a copyrighted and trademarked logo or name. This protects them legally against others selling items with their name or logo.

While it may seem like a great idea to sell products with college or university logos, and they might sell like hotcakes, chances are this would only be legal with licenses from the schools you plan to promote.

This FindLaw article will discuss the copyrights and trademark rights concerns of selling items with college logos.

The Value of a College Logo

If you close your eyes right now, you can probably picture the logo of the college you attended or your favorite college sports team. That's because colleges and universities do a great job marketing their brands. They want you to see their logo and know the school.

At the same time, they want their logos seen and used with their permission. That's where trademark and copyright issues come into play.

When School Logos Are Intellectual Property

School logos, mascots, taglines, and other branding devices are often intellectual property. Trademarks and copyrights protect these items, which protect the school's brand.

What Is a Trademark?

A trademark is a form of intellectual property that protects:

  • Names/ business names
  • Logos
  • Symbols
  • Designs associated with goods or services, distinguishing them from others in the marketplace

Service marks are a type of trademark used to protect services. Some college logos are considered service marks.

Trademark infringement occurs when an unauthorized business or individual uses a mark, such as a logo. The mark used is trademarked by another entity or is so similar to it, it confuses the general public.

The U.S. Patent and Trademark Ofrecordsrd of all registered trademarks and trademark applications.

What Is a Copyright?

Copyrights are similar to trademarks because they protect intellectual property. But copyrights only apply to creative works in a fixed medium. Copyright law protects original works of authorship, such as:

  • Literature
  • Music
  • Art
  • Graphic designs

So, copyright infringement could occur when artwork for the design of a logo or mascot, protected by copyright, gets used without permission from the copyright holder.

The U.S. Copyright Office handles copyright registration. It is optional to secure federal copyright protection for creative works. But it is necessary if you want to bring a copyright infringement case.

How Trademark Law Could Apply

Schools have various reasons for wanting to protect their trademarks, such as:

  • To prevent others from making money on their brand without the school getting a cut. A business that has bought a license from the school shares the profits with the school.
  • To ensure people understand the origin of the goods sold. Schools don't want people to think the school is selling the products.
  • To prevent the "dilution" of the logo. For example, use of a logo for many different purposes can make it generic. The trademark holder could lose the ability to protect it.
  • To protect the reputation associated with the logo. For example, a school would want to avoid its brand being associated with low-quality or controversial products.
  • The university has undergone extensive trademark registration and application process with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO). They want to uphold their exclusive rights as trademark owners.

Adding a disclaimer alone does not exempt you from potential trademark infringement claims. It is imperative to get proper licensing from the college or university. Sharing and posting college logos on your company's social media site without proper permission may still have legal ramifications.

How Copyright Law Could Apply

Colleges and universities are often successful in using claims of copyright infringement when businesses or people have reproduced the artwork for the design of a logo or mascot without a proper license. Typically, the school must only show that the business or person had access to the original, copyrighted work and sold or distributed products "substantially similar" to the original.

If you find a college logo in the public domain, copyright law does not protect it. Anyone could use the logo. But that doesn't mean it's not protected by trademark law. Public domain status does not automatically grant sellers permission to use it commercially.

Fair Use Provisions for Using College Logos

Fair use is a legal doctrine that gives limited use of copyrighted material. It allows another to use the material without seeking permission from the owner. Fair use provides a balance between protecting individuals' rights and giving the public interest the ability to create.

Fair use in copyright law allows limited use for specific purposes like:

  • Commentary
  • Education
  • Criticism

In comparison, trademark fair use focuses on deterring consumer confusion. Trademark law does not have standard fair use exception applications like copyright law. Trademarks have different considerations when determining if the use is permitted without being considered an infringement. These considerations are:

  • Nominative fair use. This allows someone to refer to the trademark so long as it does not suggest endorsement or that they are the trademark owner. This is often used in advertising when you hear a company compare itself to another brand.
  • Parody or satire
  • Descriptive fair use. This allows someone to use the trademark if it is describing their product, but not in a suggestive way. An example is saying a product has a honey-comb-shaped dehumidifier. It does not infringe on a dehumidifier trademark brand name of Honeycombe.
  • Commentary
  • Criticism

You should consult an intellectual property attorney to see if your products meet any of the requirements for fair use.

How To Legally Sell Products With College Logos

Often, colleges and universities are willing to sell licenses to businesses and individuals wanting to sell things containing the school's logo, slogan, or mascot. You should contact the university's licensing department to discuss a licensing agreement. A licensing agreement is usually needed to use a college logo for commercial use. Most universities, like Notre Dame, have a website license page for inquiries.

Once you get a license from a college or university, there will be specific terms and conditions for you to abide by. You may have to pay royalties. The university may also enforce a level of quality standards and restrictions on the products you sell.

If you do not get permission from the university, it may take legal action against you. Legal action may include a cease-and-desist letter and lawsuit. A lawsuit judgment may include damages to the university for lost profits and the destruction of your products.

Need Legal Services?

Before you start selling your university logoed T-shirts, contact an intellectual property attorney for legal advice about how to produce and sell the products you have in mind legally. Visit FindLaw's attorney directory to find an intellectual property attorney.

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