Students rattle vendor's cage over Oakland Zoo shirt rights

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Solemn young men in suits arrived in U.S. District Court yesterday to file a federal trademark infringement complaint and ask a judge for an immediate injunction.

Tyler Furgiuele, 15, of Columbus, Ohio, buys an Oakland Zoo T-shirt before a Pitt basketball game in February. (Steve Mellon, Post-Gazette)
Click photo for larger image.

The subject of this urgency: T-shirts.

Specifically, "Oakland Zoo" T-shirts, the kind students at the University of Pittsburgh wear when they rant and rave at basketball games as part of the Pitt-sanctioned Oakland Zoo Fan Club.

Communications major Matt Cohen, 21, and his buddy Zachary Hale, 21, a business major, created the rabble-rousing cheering section a couple of years back to bolster support for the Panthers at home and on the road.

The target of their complaint is Charles J. Bonasorte, a popular street vendor on campus who runs The Pittsburgh Stop Inc.

Cohen and Co. say Bonasorte is violating the law by selling their trademarked T-shirts with the "Oakland Zoo" logo.

It was their idea, they say, and Bonasorte is profiting from it without paying any royalties, as other vendors do. Proceeds from the shirts go into a university student account to pay for students to take road trips to away games.

An injunction hearing is scheduled for Thursday before Chief U.S. District Judge Donetta Ambrose.

"We're going there to get damages for the last two years," said Cohen, a serious-looking senior from Philadelphia. "He refuses to give us money."

Cohen first came to Bonasorte with the Oakland Zoo shirt idea in 2001, after which an artist who works for Bonasorte designed the shirt. Bonasorte gave Cohen 30 shirts for $150 and a student movement was born.

After the first batch of shirts were sold, Cohen ordered another 400 for $2,000, money that came from Pitt's student government board.

The two men later met to discuss a business arrangement in which Bonasorte offered to pay royalties to Cohen for sales of shirts with the Oakland Zoo trademark, according to the complaint.

But Bonasorte says he made it clear he owned the trademark and was just cutting Cohen in on the action.

"I met with Cohen. I told him that I have the copyright, I have the trademark," he said. "I offered to split all the royalties while he was in school for the next three years. I'm the master distributor. I said, 'I'll give you shirts on consignment to sell.' "

He said he never heard from Cohen on the offer.

Bonasorte, who is no stranger to court battles, says he'll fight.

""We designed it. It was my artist who worked for me. My name was on [the shirts]. If it wasn't for me there wouldn't be an Oakland Zoo right now."

Bonasorte said that since his company designed the logo, he owns the trademark and he can sell the shirts. To him, Cohen is an "arrogant kid" who wants something for nothing.

But Bonasorte might not have much of a case if the dates in the complaint are accurate.

On Nov. 7, 2002, according to the suit, Cohen obtained a trademark registration in Pennsylvania for Oakland Zoo to be placed on shirts for students and alumni.

The complaint says Bonasorte applied for a federal trademark registration on Feb. 3 of this year.

In this game, the earliest date wins.

Steve Irwin, Cohen's lawyer, sent a letter to Bonasorte in March telling him to stop selling the shirts, but he didn't.

In August or September, Bonasorte started selling shirts "substantially similar" to the ones Cohen's group had been selling, according to the complaint.

"The defendant has used and will continue to use the 'Oakland Zoo' [logo] in a manner likely to cause confusion about the source of the garments," the suit reads.

The shirts actually look quite different, but Irwin said it doesn't matter.

"I can't put Nike on a T-shirt and write it differently and claim it as my own," he said.

As for Bonasorte, this is hardly his first legal challenge.

A former Pitt football player who played on Pitt's 1976 national championship team, he has faced off against both Pitt and the city of Pittsburgh in years past.

In the early 1990s, he took on the city over his vending license after the Bureau of Building Inspection cited him repeatedly for violating vending rules. He won a suit in 1991 in Common Pleas Court, but the battle apparently is still going on. Two years ago he sued the city in federal court, saying the vending ordinance is unconstitutional and that the city continues to harass him.

The latest suit isn't his first exposure to the intricacies of trademark law, either. Pitt sued him in 1990 for trademark infringement, saying he was illegally selling school merchandise.

In the end, Bonasorte paid Pitt $5,000, stopped using the P-I-T-T letters in advertisements and agreed to become a licensed merchant of Pitt items.


Torsten Ove can be reached at tove@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2620.


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