Any Big Ten football fan can tell you how strongly THE Ohio State University protects its brand image. As Rhode Island-based apparel maker Teespring Inc. found out, however, the university’s counsel protects its intellectual property as well.
The Columbus Dispatch reports that Ohio State slapped Teespring with a trademark infringement suit over a T-shirt the company was selling featuring generic fans forming the letters O-H-I-O. A common sight at Ohio State athletic events, the university trademarked the image in 2012.
According to the suit, Ohio State asked Teespring to stop selling the T-shirt design in both December 2013 and January 2014, but the apparel maker refused. Ohio State filed suit in April in district court, saying, “Teespring continues to solicit orders for, manufacture, sell and ship infringing and counterfeit products using the Ohio State trademarks.”
The university seeks to have Teespring stop selling the T-shirt, as well as more than $1 million in damages. Teespring responded in a June filing seeking to have the case dismissed that the company “did not create any shirt designs that OSU alleges infringe its rights,” and that it has “rejected and removed hundreds of potentially infringing campaigns” as a result of previous IP owner requests.
The trademark is a tricky one for the court — the letters O-H-I-O simply spell out the state name by itself, but many in the state directly connect the symbols with the university. Ohio State received a trademark on the image as a nontraditional trademark in 2012.
“Typically, when we think of source identifiers, we think of names,” said attorney Michael Spink of Brinks Gilson & Lione to the Dispatch. “But there is an increasing trend for things that are not words. Colors, for instance. Boise State has registered the color blue as it applies to its field turf.”
This is not the first time that Ohio State has gone after an apparel manufacturer for a similar image, and the school’s success rate should give Teespring pause. In early 2014, the university won a similar suit against Columbus-based T-shirt company Skreened. Damages are still pending in that case. At the time, university spokesman Gary Lewis said that Ohio State “is very pleased” with the Skreened decision.