It's a little hard to tell who the winner was in Monday's verdict concerning T-shirts made and sold by Joe-College.com, a store in downtown Lawrence.
Officials of the Kansas University Athletic Department said they won because a jury determined that some of the Joe-College shirts infringed on the university's trademarks. But Joe-College owner Larry Sinks didn't exactly lose the case because, of the 206 shirts that were targeted in KU's lawsuit, only 50 were found to infringe on the trademark. And, although Sinks was ordered to pay KU about $127,000 in profits and royalties, that is only about a fourth of the damage amount KU had sought.
To the applause of many, Joe-College will be able to remain in business producing the blue T-shirts with their sometimes controversial white lettering. For that reason, it seems likely that this isn't the last time KU and Sinks will tangle over trademark issues.
Presumably, the 50 shirts tagged by the jury as trademark infringements will be excised from the inventory (and become instant collectors items) but what about new slogans Sink might dream up for his T-shirts? Given his willingness to fight the KU establishment in court on this issue, it's unlikely he will choose not to push the trademark envelope with future designs.
The jury didn't draw a particularly clear line on what's OK and what isn't. Many observers had wondered how the KU Athletics Department could say that it owned a certain color of blue or the word Kansas. All of the 206 shirts are blue, so that wasn't a deciding factor for the jury, and it's hard to understand on what basis jury members decided a shirt that says "Our Coach Beat Anorexia" is OK, but one that said "Our Coach Can Eat Your Coach," is not. A huge gray area obviously remains.
For KU, and perhaps for the jury, this was more than a trademark issue; it also was an effort to get rid of shirts officials found "tasteless" and therefore a poor reflection on the university. In several cases, it seemed the jury nixed shirts more because they found them to be in poor taste than because they clearly violated KU's trademark. If that is the case, this becomes a free speech issue. Although others probably agree that some of the shirts were in poor taste, that doesn't mean that Joe-College should be barred from producing them.
Many observers also saw this case as another example of the KU Athletic Department's arrogant and money-focused approach to life. The department's effort to shut down a business that dared to take money out of KU's pocket by producing popular T-shirts without paying royalties to KU had a certain David and Goliath flavor that couldn't help but make some people cheer for the underdog.
So, round one in this controversy appears to be a split decision. KU officials got something, but they didn't get rid of Joe-College - which makes it seem likely this fight will go another round or two somewhere down the road.