The Old Well is a popular campus destination, contributing to campus history as the exclusive source of water for two adjacent dormitories in years gone by. Today, however, the well functions as a water fountain surrounded by elegant columns covered by a dome. At graduation time, the line of people waiting to have their picture taken there can stretch half a block. It’s very popular.
The problem? Well . . . the university says the Old Well is their federally registered and protected trademark and that the proposed engraving on the rifle stock is done without their permission.
Trademarks protect words, names, symbols, sounds, or colors that distinguish goods and services from those manufactured or sold by others and to indicate the source of origin of the goods. We’ve all seen logos that are registered trademarks and sport an R in a circle next to them, even phrases. But can someone trademark a three-dimensional object?
The answer is yes. Check out the trademark registration for the Perrier bottle design. Would you recognize the sensuous curves of that green bottle without the label on it? Of course you would. Oh, and the next time you see one of those bottles take a close look at the label. Along the left hand edge you’ll see a reference to trademarked bottle design. Unlike a design patent for a bottle (yes, those are available too), a trademark can be renewed forever as long as it’s being properly used in commerce. Patents expire.
How about a building? Can a building be trademarked? Again, the answer is yes.
The gorgeous art deco spire of the Chrysler Building in New York City is a registered trademark, as is the fa?ade of the New York Stock Exchange. Interestingly, the NYSE trademark specifically states that the mark consists of a representation of an actual building facade with the wording “NEW YORK STOCK EXCHANGE” located beneath the pediment. UNC’s old well trademark doesn’t draw that distinction and has some interesting class designations. (Remember, class distinctions do make a difference.)
I understand why UNC would not want a beloved symbol of their university associated with a firearm. For some, the 1995 shooting spree by UNC law student Wendell Williamson near campus that killed two people and left two injured is still fresh in their mind. That plus the Virginia Tech rampage in 2007 that left 33 people dead make a rifle a symbol no school wants to be associated with.
Hopefully the parties will be able to reach an amicable resolution to this matter.
For the rest of us, the story of the Old Well illustrates the importance of legally protecting those words, images and phrases that define your business and products. It’s the only way you can legally prevent someone else from using them in a way that could hurt your competitiveness.