We have previously discussed the absurd growth of trademark and copyright claims in this country. Now, John Wayne’s descendants have had to go to court to seek the right to continue to use the legendary actor’s nickname, “Duke,” over the objections of Duke University which now claims to own the word “Duke.” The University has objected to a line of alcoholic beverages by the family called “Duke.” They appear to be using the line from the Duke’s character Wil Anderson in The Cowboys (1972) “I wouldn’t make it a habit of calling me that son.”
I must confess a bias as an old Cowboys Western addict. However, in my defense, I have long been a critic of growing copyright and trademark claims over things occurring in public or common phrases or terms. (For a prior column, click here). We have often discussed the abusive expansion of copyright and trademark laws. This includes common phrases, symbols, and images being claimed as private property. (here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here). (For a prior column, click here and here).
It appears that the feud with the university has been going on for years. The school then tried to block the registration of a Duke trademark for the line of alcoholic beverages. The University implausibly argued that a line of drinks named Duke would confuse consumers with the university. (I suppose consumers would think that this was liquid education or that they could drink their way to a degree. Of course, with the infamous Duke Lacrosse case, perhaps Duke thinks alcohol and its institution is some type of signature relationship). The claim is even more excessive when one looks at the label which clearly shows “The Duke” rather than Washington Duke. (Of course, if it were Duke tobacco, that would come closer to the real source of the Duke fortune).
The very notion of owning a noun like “Duke” continues to shock many people as it does me. However, Congress and the Obama Administration has continued to yield blindly to demand of lobbyists for increasing sanctions and criminal prosecutions for copyright and trademark violations.
Duke seems undeterred by taking on the Duke in a trademark shootout. Michael Schoenfeld, the university’s spokesman, said in a statement. “As Mr. Wayne himself said, ‘Words are what men live by … words they say and mean.’” Well, sure, but he also said in True Grit, “Young fella, if you’re looking; for trouble I’ll accommodate ya”