There’s a familiar pattern emerging in the college sports world lately. Just when a Southeastern Conference college thinks it has a hold on something good, the University of Southern California claims it as its own.
Southern Cal made headlines last week by luring Lane Kiffin to become head football coach, only a year after the 34-year-old settled into his job at the University of Tennessee. Then came the news Tuesday from a federal appeals court, which ruled that Southern Cal -- not the University of South Carolina -- had the rightful trademark claim to an interlocking “SC” logo employed by both institutions.
The ruling will not force South Carolina to immediately discontinue use of the logo, which is predominantly featured on baseball caps. It will, however, deny South Carolina some of the trademark protections that come with federal registration, while at the same time granting Southern Cal an opening to legally challenge South Carolina’s use of the logo.
“In light of this opinion, South Carolina is going to have to take a careful look at its activities,” said Scott Edelman, a Los Angeles lawyer representing Southern California.
The appeals court ruling is the latest decision in a case that stretches back to 2002, when Southern California challenged South Carolina’s application to federally register its “SC” logo as a trademark. The Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB) refused to register the logo, saying it was confusingly similar to that of Southern Cal.
In a counterclaim, South Carolina challenged Southern Cal’s use of the logo, arguing that the initials “SC” actually have a longstanding association with the state of South Carolina, of which the university is an agency. The court found, however, that the university failed to make its case that “SC” is uniquely identifiable with the state. Indeed, the university’s own evidence demonstrated that 16 other colleges use the letters “SC” to represent themselves.
The ruling was labeled “nonprecedential,” signaling that it has few obvious applications to other trademark disputes.
Even absent trademark registration, South Carolina has other legal avenues available to protect its baseball logo from unauthorized reproduction, according to Neil Jones, a lawyer representing the university. That said, the registration would be useful because it gives an institution an “automatic ticket” to challenge infringement, Jones said.
“The University of South Carolina certainly believed that this was important enough to try to overcome the TTAB’s decision,” he said, “and frankly it’s because we like to protect our trademarks, and we would like to have a federal registration for our baseball logo.”
No decision has been made about whether the university will take its case to the U.S. Supreme Court, Jones said.