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Trademarks: Easy money for higher education?

It's not scholarly material, but it generates $4.6 billion for institutions every year
University Business, October 2014

While trademark would not generally be considered scholarly material that is serving the public good, the $4.6 billion a year it generates for institutions does help them remain more healthy and visible.

That total makes it the second largest category of licensed merchandise in the country, behind only Major League Baseball, says Andrew Giangola, vice president of Strategic Communications at Collegiate Licensing Company, a sports marketing company that represents nearly 200 colleges and universities.

Dale Arens, director of licensing at the University of Iowa, says that the important components of a profitable trademark-licensing business are a good brand, routine success and a healthy economy. And because so much of trademark revenue is in apparel, shifts in popular fashion also affect profitability, he adds.

Even the largest brands face different retail environments. “College is uniquely different because each marketplace has its nuances,” Arens says. “For example, there are no professional teams in Iowa; we’re a nonpopulist, Midwest state and we don’t have an intensely robust retail environment. That is discernibly different than Ohio State, which has 21 million people within a six-hour radius of their campus and has multiple professional entities.”

One of the primary trademark challenges in the current market is competing with free products, Arens says.

“We’re in a promotional culture now, where colleges, following the pro-sports model, are giving away a lot of stuff,” he says. “If we’re giving free T-shirts to the first 500 people in the door, then what does that do to the perceived value of what the merchant down the street is trying to sell?”

Another hurdle is regulating trademark use, Giangola says. “The proliferation of counterfeit goods has created challenges in the industry, particularly with technology advances in both manufacturing and selling,” he says. “The sale of counterfeit caps, T-shirts and other items found at just about every major college game collectively robs millions of dollars from universities each year.”

Arens says he doesn’t have trouble finding out when someone has infringed upon the Hawkeye name and logo.

“We have 250,000-plus living alumni and it seems like every one of them is a detective, because they see something, then right away say something,” he says. “I don’t have to go looking for infringement because there’s always somebody sending it to me.”

How Arens follows up depends on the severity of the infringement, he says, and can range from a low-key letter to legal action.

“If I hear of a high school that’s doing something, that’s still infringement, but it’s probably well-intentioned flattery,” he says. “My tone talking to someone selling Hawkeye shirts that weren’t properly licensed would be different.”

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