In 1991, Woodrow Wilson High School installed a new floor in the main hallway. At the center, they put a tile mosaic of a stylized wildcat head based on a design that had been used around the school for a decade. Twenty-one years later, Principal Kyle
Rains Richardson received a letter from James D. Aronowitz, an attorney with Atlanta-based Collegiate Licensing Company.
"Your school's use of a mark that is nearly identical to the WILDCAT HEAD design Mark may cause consumers to erroneously believe that the University [of Arizona] has authorized Woodrow Wilson High School to use its Marks," the lawyer wrote. "Additionally, it will dilute the distinctiveness of the Mark that the public associates with the University. It will also interfere with the University's ability to effectively market and license the use of the Marks in the marketplace."
The message was clear: Ditch the wildcat logo or suffer the legal consequences.
Aggressive enforcement of copyright claims by large universities isn't particularly new or unique. But it's picked up over the past decade as merchandise sales have become increasingly lucrative.
"There is a doctrine in trademark law that says you don't own a trademark for all time, you own it for as long as you're using it and it refers to you," Christine Haight Farley, an Associate Professor of Law at American University's Washington College of Law, told Monument Media in 2005 after Oregon State University had gone after a small Ohio high school for aping its beaver logo. "Once you stop using it, or allow too many others to use it without complaint, then you lose the rights and you don't get to enforce them."
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This is invariably an inconvenience for the high schools, which sometimes are forced to spend several thousand dollars ripping out gym floors or buying new uniforms. Woodrow's wildcat isn't quite ubiquitous -- it's not on any jerseys or merchandise -- but it's common and has long served as an emblem of the school, adorning official letterhead and, until recently, its website. Some teachers still have old spirit shirts that bear the logo. At first Dallas ISD wasn't even sure at first that the University of Arizona had a legitimate legal claim. Responding to the demand letter, district attorney Lee Simpson wrote that "we believe that there is no basis for the demand that you have made upon the school." Nevertheless "in an effort to resolve this matter amicably and efficiently," he proposed paying UA a small royalty for continued use of the image while promising not to put it on any merchandise offered for sale.
That wasn't quite good enough for the university, which passed along a couple of wildcat images to which it owns the copyright. One is clearly identical, or nearly so, to Woodrow's. Simpson conceded the point, but the floor presented a problem.
"The building has a city historic designation and may not be demolished," Simpson wrote. "Thus, the floor design is likely to remain as long as there is a building." In another letter, he was more direct: "At this point, we will not consider removing that piece of floor."
In May, after several months of back-and-forth, the two parties reached an agreement: Woodrow had two years to phase out the logo on everything except for the tile mosaic which the university will graciously allow to remain indefinitely.