LU students may protest, but lawyers explain why ...
Lipscomb has been buzzing with chatter after news broke Friday night that the university officially would begin removing all use of the acronym “LU” from campus.
The university had been contacted by Virginia-based Liberty University, which claimed ownership of the abbreviation.
Assistant Vice President of Communication and Marketing Kim Chaudoin said the university will return to “Lipscomb” being the primary logo for the school.
“In the whole scheme of the 122 years that the university’s been around, this is just a very small blip on the screen,” Chaudoin said. “Yes, it seems like kind of a big deal now, but Lipscomb has always been the Lipscomb brand.”
Chaudoin said that although Lipscomb would still love to keep “LU” as a part of the school, the campus will not allow a logo controversy to throw a wrench in the gears.
“We would prefer to be able to use this mark,” she said. “[But] Lipscomb is still Lipscomb, and we’re bigger than two letters. We’re bigger than a logo.”
Many Lipscomb students have expressed their shock at the move.
“I honestly think it’s kind of dumb,” says Emily Dunn, a senior family relations major. “Aren’t there other universities that use the same abbreviations? I think we should be able to use it because we are Lipscomb University…LU.
“But I don’t necessarily think we should go to court over it, either.”
Junior English major Melissa Pinhal suggested Liberty take a look at other schools that could potentially use the “LU” acronym, including Lund University, Lincoln University, Lancaster University, Lamar University, Lawrence University, Lehigh University, Loughborough University, Laurentian University, Lindenwood University, Lakehead University, Lingnan University, Lynn University, Longwood University, LeToruneau University and Lebanese University.
“LU is a simple abbreviation, and it has been used to identify all of the schools listed above,” she said. “I don’t think [Liberty] can trademark LU. It’s an abbreviation. It’s used to abbreviate many things aside from universities. Regardless of the validity of their claim, I think that this is petty. We’re both Christian schools. What would Jesus do?”
Senior softball player Heather Parker said she believes the financial aspect could be an issue, especially for the athletic department.
“I think it’ll be a financial problem for the athletic department,” Parker said. “You know, we already have to budget everything that we do, and a lot of teams use that logo specifically and don’t write out ‘Lipscomb.’ I think that for teams to get new uniforms or practice jerseys or anything it’ll definitely be a financial burden.”
Senior track and field athlete Tucker Peabody said he doesn’t understand why action hadn’t been taken sooner to correct a situation created two years ago when Lipscomb underwent a logo change.
“I think it kind of [stinks] for the university because we’ve gone almost two years using the symbol, like on our basketball court, on shirts for all the athletic gear, and representing the school,” Peabody said. “I think if Liberty has copyright, then they have every right to do that. But I just think it [stinks] for us that it’s just now happening now and not when we originally came up with the new logo.”
Senior Aaron Spragg shares the opinion of those above.
“I think it’s just dumb that you can’t have the same logo as someone else,” Spragg said. “It’s not like we’re stealing their money or anything. We’re just using the logo that represents our school. There’s plenty of schools that have the symbol of ‘LU,’ and I think it’s dumb that we can’t.”
Liberty’s David Corry offers the school’s stance
Liberty University general counsel David Corry explained that under federal trademark law, if you fail to police the use of your marks, you risk losing protection that the law gives you.
“Liberty University, for some time, has had copyright on the capital ‘L’ and the ‘U’ next to each other in connection with higher education.
“When it has become aware of the use of those two letters in the connection of higher ed, in trade, it has approached the entity that’s using it and asked them to either bring their use into a license agreement, so it’s done with express permission and under certain conditions, or to abandon the use.
“We were in the process of negotiating some license with Lipscomb, but, in the end, I think Lipscomb decided that it would prefer to phase out its use and to end all electronic use immediately.”
Corry said he believes that Lipscomb will cease restocking any apparel or other merchandise that brandishes the “LU” logo.
He said that Lipscomb’s decision to phase out the acronym was good enough for Liberty.
“That was their decision, and when they indicated that they would do that, we didn’t see the need to prosecute any kind of infringement action and thought it was a satisfactory resolution of the matter,” Corry said.
He was complimentary of the way Lipscomb handled the situation.
“We thought that the folks at Lipscomb were very polite and a pleasure to deal with on the matter,” Corry said. “There wasn’t any animus, and everyone was perfectly gentlemanly.”
He said the university chose to first file for trademarking rights in February 2010.
Legal experts weigh in
Local copyright attorney Paul Kruse said he believes that the action brought by Liberty is not out of the norm.
“Any trademark owner is typically quite concerned about use of a confusingly similar mark by anybody in a closely related field,” Kruse said. “So it’s certainly appropriate for somebody if they really think there’s a likelihood of confusion to pursue it, to try to put a stop to it. Of course, in this case, well, I guess that probably was what was motivating Liberty.
“They felt that the LU, of course Lipscomb, was also using LU for obvious reasons. It’s a natural acronym for both schools.”
Kruse said that, since Lipscomb and Liberty are both university settings, he can see where the concern was.
Erik Pelton, a trademark attorney in Virginia, said that when a phrase is copyrighted, it’s the license-holder who is king.
“In trademarking, in general, when two names are very similar or identical and are used on services that are very similar or identical, the company, or in this case school, that was using it first generally has superior rights,” Pelton said.
“When you’re dealing with a very short or common name, or when you’re dealing with an acronym of two or three letters, it’s difficult to come up with a unique acronym of two letters because there’s only a limited range of them. There is generally more leeway.”
Despite the legal base that Liberty has in the trademarking, Pelton said he was taken aback that the university trademarked the phrase – really just an acronym– in the first place.
“I’m a little surprised that the school claimed exclusive use of ‘L’ and ‘U,’” Pelton said.
A big question on many Bisons’ minds is why Lipscomb is the university being singled out for its use of a fairly common acronym. Corry explained that there is no difference between Lipscomb and any other university that uses “LU” in an official manner.
“We have contacted other schools when we’ve become aware of an issue,” Corry said.
He said that the issue comes down to a matter of trade.
“That’s what a trademark does; it prohibits it from being used in trade,” he said. “Now if, in some internal document at the university, someone abbreviated ‘LU,’ and it wasn’t being used as trade, I don’t think that that’s what the issue is. The issue is marketing, merchandising, web presence.”
When asked about the agreement that some schools make, like Mississippi State and Michigan State, who both use the acronym “MSU” freely, Kruse and Pelton agreed that, typically, those matters are handled out of court, and that the two schools can live with each other sharing the same acronym.
“I agree that, in those cases, there is often a solution where you say ‘We’re going to use it in different colors and different designs, and it’s probably going to reference either Lipscomb University or Liberty University most of the time when we use the ‘LU,’” Pelton said. “Those are ways in the real world that, oftentimes, parties can coexist and deal with situations where they are sharing an acronym or sharing a name.”
Kruse said that the confusion of brands could be one of the reasons for a claim of trademark.
“It’s the confusion of the consumer that they’re worried about,” he said. “But if parties make their own deal, make their own arrangements, do things to set each other’s use of a common acronym apart, that’s certainly fine. A law usually won’t disturb that.
“In other words, a judge wouldn’t come in and say, if the two schools you named made a deal, and say ‘Oh, you can’t do that.’ If the schools are OK with it, then usually it’s fine. Almost every trademark problem can be, if the parties agree, solved by agreement.”
Additional reporting by Bridgette Begle, Logan Butts, Aaron Schmelzer, Kyrsten Turner and Brianne Welch.