Use of Trademark Protected by First Amendment

A Federal Appeals Court ruled that an artist’s use of the University of Alabama’s trademark within his paintings was protected by the U.S. Constitution First Amendment Free Speech Clause.

In litigation that cost the University of Alabama an estimated $1.4 million in legal fees, the University claimed the artist’s depictions of Alabama Crimson Tide football team violated the University trademark rights.

The Federal Appeals Court disagreed noting that the depiction of the University’s uniforms in the unlicensed paintings, prints and calendars were artistically relevant to the underlying works, and the interests in artistic expression outweigh the risks of confusion as to endorsement.

This lawsuit provides important lessons for other post-secondary institutions who seek to preserve their trademarks.  The court ruling makes clear that expressive works will be provided First Amendment protection; therefore administrators need to be cautious in weighing the cost of protecting the institutions trademark.

Patrick R. Sturdy is a partner in our Livonia office where he concentrates his practice on education law, employment and labor law, corporate and business law, and intellectual property. He may be reached at (734) 261-2400 or psturdy@cmda-law.com.