The other shoe has dropped in a Kansas University trademark infringement lawsuit, but there are no clear-cut winners in the case.
More than a year after Joe-College.com was ordered to pay $127,000 in penalties for selling T-shirts that jurors decided violated or diminished KU trademarks, the store owners were ordered last week to reimburse Kansas Athletics Inc. for $667,507 in attorney fees and expenses associated with the case. After learning of the order, Joe-College owner Larry Sinks described himself as “numb,” adding, “I don’t have it (the money), I can tell you that.”
After Sinks and his partners have a chance to assess the situation, they may find some legal remedy that would allow them to stay in business. Perhaps they can appeal the ruling or the amount or find some refuge in a bankruptcy proceeding that allows them to stay in business.
The legal proceedings in this case are ongoing. KU still is appealing the original verdict in which the jury found that only 53 of the 206 Joe-College designs in the lawsuit actually infringed upon or diluted KU trademarks. Perhaps the lawsuit will be dropped if KU accomplishes what obviously is its ultimate goal: to run Joe-College out of business.
KU has a right to protect its licensed trademarks. The list of T-shirts in the KU lawsuit included some that clearly infringed on university trademarks, but it also included many that involved wordplay that many people found amusing. In some cases, the closest the T-shirts came to infringing on KU was that they were printed on a blue background.
Sinks and his partners chose to push the trademark envelope — and perhaps the emotional buttons of athletic department officials who had expressed their displeasure with many of his designs. They have produced at least a few shirts that many people found to be profane or distasteful.
Joe-College isn’t blameless, and it might have been a good business decision for the owners to work with, rather than thumb their noses at, KU. On the other hand, KU — which is continuing to run up legal costs that it may try to recoup later — comes across looking like a Goliath who is pursuing some kind of personal vendetta against a small business David.
As we noted at the outset, there are no winners in this case. Joe-College apparently has lost the financial battle, but KU Athletics also has lost some points in the ongoing public relations war.