Protecting Stanford’s brand name

A bartending service, a Japanese memory foam mattress company and many a Chinese tutoring service once had one thing in common — their use of Stanford’s name to sell their product. After enforcement action by the Stanford Office of the General Counsel, all of these companies stopped their improper use of Stanford trademarks, but the University deals with similar cases on an almost daily basis.

(ERIC KOFMAN/The Stanford Daily)

According to the Administrative Guide to Ownership of Stanford Name and Trademarks, Stanford’s trademarked names and symbols may only be used for activities that are directly sponsored or sanctioned by the University or if there is a licensing contract in place.

The University owns several trademarks, which are registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. These include the names “Stanford” and “Stanford University Medical Center,” as well as the block “S” with tree and the Stanford University seal.

Stanford also closely monitors how films and photographers use its lands. Whether it is a wedding photographer or the crew of “The Internship,” a film starring Owen Wilson and Vince Vaughn that filmed on campus over the summer, the photographer or filmmaker must get express permission from the Office of University Communications.

In the past few years, tutoring companies in Asia, particularly in China, have become frequent offenders of improperly using Stanford’s name. These companies will claim to have a connection to Stanford and use the University’s name or logo in its marketing materials, leading some students to believe that the company holds some sort of sway with the admissions office, according to Steve Rosen, senior university counsel.

While the University has taken steps to protect its brand by trademarking its name in Chinese characters, enforcing trademark rules is substantially more difficult in Asia because of differences in legal processes, a problem that almost every university and corporation that does business in China faces, according to Rosen.

Susan Weinstein, university privacy officer and assistant vice president for business development, said the University tries to prevent entities from using Stanford’s name for commercial purposes.

“The first question we ask is, ‘Are they trying to trade on Stanford’s reputation in order to make money?’” Weinstein said.

In order for the use of Stanford’s trademarks to be considered appropriate, it must be accurate, meaning that it must actually be associated with Stanford. It also must be quality, meaning that it must be used in connection with activities that meet Stanford’s educational standards and goals.

In certain circumstances outlined by the Administrative Guide, the University will approve the commercial use of our name or emblems. This includes the University’s contract with Nike, for example.

When deciding to grant a license, her office considers whether the item reflects well on the University, Weinstein said. She gave the exaggerated examples of headstones and toilet seat covers as items that would probably not “reflect well” on the University.

The University does have a licensing deal with a company called Hanky Panky, which sells underwear featuring the Stanford logo.

Stanford has several ways to find out about improper use of trademarks, including a contract with the Collegiate Licensing Company (CLC), a company used by many high-profile colleges. Stanford also uses subscription services that alert administrators when someone registers one of the University’s trademarks or a domain name that includes “Stanford,” according to Weinstein.

In addition to formal services like CLC, Stanford also counts on the vigilance of the Stanford community in reporting questionable uses of Stanford’s name and logo.

According to Weinstein, alums, staff, faculty and students will sometimes report a use of the Stanford name that “strikes them as odd.” Her office then investigates and passes the matter along to the Office of the General Counsel for enforcement action if the use is found to be improper.

Rosen said that when a company is found to be wrongly using Stanford’s name or marks, the University sends a cease-and-desist letter asking that they stop their improper use.

While many entities misuse Stanford’s name or image, Rosen said that the most common type of misuse is probably by “innocent users” of the University’s trademarks.

“People will write on their website, ‘This is something I did at Stanford,’ which suggests that they did research at Stanford or that Stanford faculty was involved when in fact the only thing that was done was some project on the side while they were at Stanford,” Rosen said.

Similar to other institutions that offer educational services, the University is especially diligent in making sure uses of Stanford’s name and marks are proper. If they did not, there could be significant confusion or misrepresentation that would reflect poorly on the university and could cause harm to customers, according to Weinstein.

Both Rosen and Weinstein said that Stanford monitors the use of its name both for its own protection, but also for the protection of consumers.

“It’s really as much a consumer protection measure as it is a protection for companies who invest in their marks,” Rosen said.

Rosen said that trademarks are a way for the consumer to ensure that the product they are buying is of the quality that they expect from, in this case, Stanford University.

About Mary Harrison