What do the following phrases or sayings have in common?
- first-year experience
- fast-track MBA
- be the difference
- cure violence
- student life
- students with diabetes
- one course at a time
- touched by a nurse
- we're conquering cancer
- working toward a world without cancer
- imagination beyond measure
- tomorrow starts here
The surprising answer (as revealed in an article by Jacob H. Rooksby in The Chronicle of Higher Education) is that using any of them just might get you sued by a university or college. Various institutions have obtained federal trademark registrations on the phrases, presumably to stop other people from using them in any context remotely related to education. The details:
- first-year experience has been trademarked by the University of South Carolina
- fast-track MBA has been trademarked by Eastern University
- be the difference has been trademarked by Marquette University
- cure violence has been trademarked by the University of Illinois
- student life has been trademarked by Washington University in St. Louis
- students with diabetes has been trademarked by the University of South Florida
- one course at a time has been trademarked by Cornell College
- touched by a nurse has been trademarked by the University of Colorado
- we're conquering cancer has been trademarked by the University of Texas
- working toward a world without cancer has been trademarked by the University of Kansas Hospital
- imagination beyond measure has been trademarked by the University of Virginia
- tomorrow starts here has been trademarked by East Carolina University
And it's not as if universities won't act in defense of their trademarked property. The University of Alabama has made legal threats against a cake shop; East Carolina University sued Cisco; West Virginia University sued a company selling blue-and-gold shirts (they said "Let's Go Drink Some Beers!"—which WVU claimed was too close to their trademarked "Let's Go Mountaineers!").
It is depressing to see universities acting like the trademark equivalent of patent trolls. So let's all use as many of the above phrases as we can, to reduce to absurdity their claims that they are trademarks. C'mon, be the difference! With only first year experience, we can do this, one course at a time. We're conquering trademark hoarding; working toward a world without patent trolls. With imagination beyond measure, maybe we can cure violence and students with diabetes too. You never know. Tomorrow starts here.
A version of this post appeared on Language Log.