Thursday, July 17, 2008

Barack Chalk Jayhawk

Unless you're a prairie dweller or a die-hard sports fan, you probably don't know the meaning of this post title, and why would you? But my employer is the University of Kansas, whose mascot is the Jayhawk (a mythical bird that cannot fly), and "Rock Chalk Jayhawk" is a chant, intoned slowly, at sporting events here (by the way, we're called "KU," not "UK"). In the last 25 years, this phrase, as well as the words "Kansas," "Jayhawks" "Crimson and Blue," and other such words and phrases have been trademarked by the University, and they have made millions in t-shirts, ballcaps, hoodies, stadium chairs, etc. purchased by the faithful from licensed vendors, who pay the University a premium for the use of those words on said items.

This week, a jury decided that the University can demand that vendors cease and desist the production of such paraphernalia when those trademarked words, in combination with certain colors and certain other words, either infringe on the right of the University to make money, or dilute the trademarks themselves. Apparently, KU is the canary in the trademark infringement coal mine: other universities were watching the outcome of this case closely.

They should not have bothered. Because you could not make case law out of this verdict if you tried. What did the jury have in mind when, for example, after viewing over 200 t-shirt designs, they found in favor of the University as regards a t-shirt design that says "Kansas Swim Team" (with little sperm swimming underneath), but in favor of the the t-shirt purveyor-defendant regarding t-shirts that say, "Kansas Drinking Team," and "Kansas Co-ed Naked Beer Pong?" Furthermore, there were hundreds of other designs, all related to the University, but which were idiosyncratic to individual players, coaches, or administrators. Why were some of these deemed off-limits while others were not, even though all were equally offensive, or equal in their use of trademarked words? For example, the coach of the football team is quite obese. The jury ruled in favor of the University regarding the phrase, "Our Coach Can Eat Your Coach," but in favor of the vendor on the phrase, "Our Coach Beat Anorexia."

This t-shirt conundrum also has a political side story: for the last several years, I have been the faculty advisor to the Kansas University Young Democrats, a sanctioned University student group who pay tuition to this University, and work their collective tail off for the party locally and statewide. This year, as with a lot of college students, the group became Obama supporters, and asked the University's trademark office for permission to sell t-shirts that said "Barack Chalk Jayhawk," with the Obama campaign logo. Clever, no? They were given permission to sell fifty.

The point is, they could have sold several thousand, and made a considerable amount of money for their University-sanctioned group. I had people calling me from all over the country who wanted those shirts, after our governor, a big Obama supporter, was spotted on TV wearing hers. Yet, they were enjoined from making more, because this would have "infringed upon" and "diluted" the University's marks.
So this is what it's come to. These kids go to this university for four years, and build up an affinity for the place. They pay tuition, they purchase tickets to the sporting events, they buy their books through the bookstore, and when they graduate, the Endowment Association comes calling for a donation to their alma mater. In other words, they are encouraged to have pride of ownership in this place, to be "loyal," because it is this loyalty that the University hopes to capitalize on long after they have graduated. But, as students, they are not allowed to participate in commerce that involves the symbols of their University, even if the entity that profits is a University-sanctioned group.

Call me crazy. But I've seen t-shirts with the Jayhawk wearing a dangling cross on a chain. I've seen "Jewhawk" t-shirts. I've seen "Gayhawk" t-shirts. I have no idea if any were sold by licensed vendors or not. Either way, none of these logo modifications seem to have done any damage to the University's reputation. In fact, I'm guessing that they help the wearer further identify with the University, which is what donor-dependent institutions (e.g.all universities) want. But this is the sort of nonsense we get when we privatize those portions of the institution that make money. The forest is lost as the focus is placed on those lucrative trees.
So Barack Chalk Jayhawk! Go Nebraska-O(b)mah(m)a! And USC, I hope you will print silkscreens of Obama dressed as a Trojan. You get the picture. The big picture. The rest is nonsense.

1 comment:

Simran Sethi said...

When I was first gifted with a Jayhawk sticker, I threw it away. It looked like Woody Woodpecker. It still does, but now I have Jayhawk pride. I am not at all surprised that there wasn't any consistency in the legal decision - trademark infringement is rife with ambiguity (a Bratz doll is Barbie's sister? What?). Is there a KU McCain group? I would be interested in hearing how their shirts may have been received. And if Barack doesn't wander back on to the "change" path, I am auctioning off my Rock Chalk Barack shirt to the highest bidder. . .