Protecting Harvard: Words to Sue By?

University's slogan trademarking efforts raise eyebrows.

ByABC News
August 3, 2009, 4:58 PM

Aug. 4, 2009— -- Is Harvard becoming the Nike of higher education?

The sneaker giant built a mega-successful brand in part by trademarking a common, three-word phrase that initially had no overt connection to athletic footware: "Just do it."

The most famous university in the world, meanwhile, is applying for trademark rights on phrases in which the tie-ins to Harvard are also less than obvious: "Managing yourself" and "The world's thinking." The university, as reported by the Boston Globe, already has registered trademarks for the phrases "Ask what you can do" -- from President Kennedy's 1961 inaugural address -- and "lessons learned" with the U.S. Patent Office.

A company's decision to pursue legal protections for a snappy catchphrase is nothing unusual. But for a university it's different, said Joe Dreitler, an Ohio-based trademark lawyer whose clients have included Budweiser and former Vice President Al Gore.

"This is a fairly aggressive postion for educational institutions who are not historically known for hardball competition in the marketplace," Dreitler said.

Experts say university trademarks are more common in the area of sports, with colleges staking their claims on team names, mascots and signature colors.

But some, including Dreitler, question whether a university should be trying to make the same claims on common terms in the English language.

"The idea of registering this as a trademark for education services for a university -- it does seem to be really close to the line as far as trying to take common terms in the English language and keep them from others using them to teach," he said.

Others argue that the trademarking of such slogans wouldn't actually limit education: Another university, for instance, could still use the phrase "The world's thinking" in a description in its course catalog -- it just couldn't necessarily use it in large type on the cover of the catalog, said Martin Schwimmer, a New York trademark lawyer, who represents Fortune 100 companies.

Rick Clixto, the director of Harvard's trademark office, told the Boston Globe that the university registers common phrases "for the same reason McDonald's registered [its slogan] 'I'm lovin' it.'"