Can I Put My School's Name on T-Shirts for Sale?

Question

I want to print T-shirts and other items to sell at my college. I was wondering whether there would be any legal problems with using the school name and logo on the shirt. My school is a nonprofit organization that is funded primarily by tuition.

Answer

Printing your college's name and logo onto a T-shirt may seem harmless. After all, you pay tuition to go there!

But before you print a big maroon "Vassar" onto a hat, or a blue "Yale" onto a sweatshirt, remember that these schools likely consider their names and logos to be trademarks. Like any business, colleges and universities consider their names, colors, and logos to be essential parts of their brands.

Indeed, many universities have entire offices of lawyers dedicated to protecting their trademark rights. (As an example, you can check out Harvard's trademark attorneys on their website).

Imagine that a store in New York begins printing maroon "Vassar" T-shirts without first obtaining permission. Surely, the college would sue and get a court order enjoining the store from making or selling those T-shirts.

Now, the calculus might change if a current student were the "infringer." If you copy your college's name and logo onto a T-shirt, it is relatively unlikely that its lawyers will sue their own student. The optics would not please the parents!

However, you might get yourself into trouble with the administration. Your better course of action would be to speak with the student affairs office and receive permission. Most likely, they will consent to your use, and you will have nothing to worry about.

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