Varsity Xtra: Copy cats / Duplicating teams' logos no big deal
Using college, pro monograms, logos, not out of ordinary for some high schools
December 26, 2013 11:44 PM
West Allegheny quarterback Andrew Koester sports the Wisconsin Badgers-style W on his helmet.
By Craig Meyer and Michael Sanserino / Pittsburgh Post-Gazette
The images are familiar ones, seen at midfield at high school football stadiums, on polo shirts of high school coaches and on the helmets of teams that take the field on Friday nights.
While some in the Pittsburgh area may identify them with a particular high school, those marks are also used by professional and college teams.
Among others, The "W" in West Allegheny's WA logo bears a striking resemblance to Wisconsin's "W." The same goes for Plum's mustang head and the Denver Broncos' horse logo. Shady Side Academy and Penn Hills each have spear helmet decals that are similar to those found on Florida State's helmets.
Those are a handful of local examples that are part of a nationwide occurrence, one that has led to a battle over trademarks that continues for some universities and franchises.
High schools do not have the right to use the logos and colors of their college and professional counterparts. But that does not prevent high schools from doing it anyway.
"It's more of an enforcement issue," said Dr. John Grady, an associate professor in the University of South Carolina's College of Hospitality, Retail and Sport Management. "Is it worth the time to go after a high school for their logo when there may be no competing merchandise sold in the same marketplace?"
Usually, the answer is no.
Trademarks are meant to protect the owner's right to profit off those protected images, words and colors, and if a high school hundreds of miles away is using the same logo, it poses little threat to the professional or college team.
In other words if there is no harm, there is no need to call foul.
High schools run into problems when they start selling the merchandise. Then, colleges and professional teams are more likely to protect their brand.
In some instances, deals are made. Jeannette is allowed to use Kansas' Jayhawk logo as long as it signs a licensing agreement acknowledging that Kansas owns the trademark and that it is used in a non-commercial way, according to Jim Marchiony, the university's associate athletic director of public affairs.
Grady grew up in Pennsylvania and remembers several schools using the Penn State logo and "Lions" name as their own.
"There really isn't much incentive for Penn State or any high profile university to go after these schools," he said.
Instead, the university focused its efforts on institutions that were directly profiting off Penn State's protected brand.
That does not mean, however, that universities and professional teams will turn a blind eye to high schools. Typically it means they will not spend a lot of time searching for those infractions. But if they do become aware of such use, they often will send a cease-and-desist letter asking high schools to change their logo as soon as possible.
Pitt sent such a letter to Whitmer High School in Toledo in 2010 after the school adopted its Panther logo. The school quickly changed its logo but needed more time to remove it from its synthetic turf field -- a high-dollar proposition.
When it comes to Wisconsin's "motion W," the university does not grant permission to high schools to use the logo. But if they discover an infraction, they ask the schools in question to phase out the logo over time, largely to reduce the financial burden that comes with the change.
For large universities, such situations present a delicate balance. They don't want schools to piggyback illegally off their established brand, but they also don't want to play the role of a bully as a powerful institution going aggressively after a smaller, more fragile one.
"We can provide the same information to every school and one will totally understand the trademark issues and another will turn it into David vs. Goliath," said Cindy Van Matre, Wisconsin's trademark licensing director, in an email. "It is not our intention to be Goliath, but we also need to protect our valuable logo."
As it is with colleges, enforcement is predictably difficult for NFL teams. There are countless high schools across the country -- including 138 in the WPIAL alone -- so pursuing possible offenders is an unrealistic and unnecessary venture for billion-dollar franchises.
So why exactly do high schools do this? In some instances, it comes from ignorance -- simply, the schools don't realize they need permission to use the trademark.
In other cases, the trend is borne out of economic feasibility. Instead of seeking out and paying a graphic design team to create an original mark, a school can get a sleek and attractive logo for no cost.
Part of the problem surrounding the illegal use of trademarks also stems from uniform suppliers. Van Matre noted how in many cases involving the motion W, they found that the suppliers misrepresent themselves and tell high schools they have permission to use it.
Understandable as some of the reasons may be for the high schools to use these marks, professional teams and universities have to look out for their own well-being.
"The overall concern when you're talking about unauthorized use of the school's protected marks is it erodes the integrity and value of the trademark as an identifier of the collegiate institutions," said Jim Aronowitz of the Collegiate Licensing Company.
Like a number of high schools in the area, Central Catholic uses the nickname "Vikings" and the school's athletic teams feature elements of the Minnesota Vikings' logo.
Central Catholic's nickname dates back to 1934 -- nearly 30 years before the Minnesota Vikings played their first NFL game -- and the images that come with it have become part of the program's rich history.
For the high schools themselves, there's still an attachment to these logos, even if they aren't necessarily their own.
"I don't think our school community would even want that," Central Catholic athletic director Chuck Crummie said of a possible change. "They like the Viking as it is and I know some other schools have maybe adopted some different types of Vikings. But the helmets and the Viking logo itself have been all we've ever had as long as I've been here."
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