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

Colleges and universities have valid trademarks, just like other types of business and non-profit entities.

Question

I want to print T-shirts and other items to sell at my college. Are there 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! Colleges can often feel like "your" community, particularly when you live there for four years.

But before you print a big burgundy "Vassar" onto a hat or sweatshirt, remember that the school likely considers its names and logos to be trademarks. Just like any business, colleges and universities consider their names, colors, and logos to be essential parts of their brands. Schools use their names in marketing to prospective students and faculty, as well as through sales of goods in the campus bookstore. Thus, a trademark has real value to a school.

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 burgundy "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, and possibly seek money damages against the store.

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 or communications office to seek permission. Most likely, they will consent to your use, and you will have nothing to worry about. They may simply advise that you use the correct color and font to maintain the integrity of the brand, and ensure that you do not use the name in connection with any inappropriate or illegal activities.

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