Pennsylvania State University could be making life harder for businesses nationwide that use the words “Happy Valley.”
On December 4th, 2018, Penn State filed a trademark application for “Happy Valley.” Why, you may ask? “Happy Valley” is generally used by locals to describe the area where Penn State is located. In seeking this trademark, Penn State aims to profit off of any merchandise featuring the words “Happy Valley,” as well as prevent the words from being used in ways that the university deems to be improper.
This trademark grab is one of many within recent years, as colleges and universities have been seeking trademarks for various terms in order to protect their respective brands. This was not always the case: most major universities did not seek trademark protections until a “brand awareness awakening” in the 2000s.
Since then, universities have taken trademark registration and brand protection very seriously. Duke University, for instance, has blocked a trademark for “Duke’s Folly,” a California wine company run by a family with the surname “Duke.” North Carolina State University has prevented other colleges and businesses from using its trademarked sports team name, the Wolfpack.
Brand protection goes beyond the realm of college athletics. One high profile dispute involved the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights, whose trademark registration was opposed by the U.S. Army due to confusion regarding the Army’s own “Golden Knights” parachuting team. The parties ultimately reached a settlement.
There is an active debate as to whether universities should be seeking and enforcing these trademark rights. The universities argue that trademark protection serves to protect the integrity of their brands and their sports programs. This is evident where vendors use university logos in disparaging and/or offensive ways. In addition, trademark rights can serve to reduce consumer confusion as to the source and authenticity of a piece of merchandise.
However, critics of this use of trademark law argue that terms like “Happy Valley” should remain in the public domain. They argue that it is unfair for a university to control uses of certain terms and phrases nationwide, especially where there is hardly any likelihood of actual confusion. Further, excessive enforcement of trademark rights can serve to stifle creativity, forcing some artists to either pay a licensing fee or avoid the infringing phrases.
As to the words “Happy Valley,” it is unclear whether Penn State will gain a trademark and how they will seek to enforce it if they do. For those outside of central Pennsylvania, the words “Happy Valley” are more likely to evoke thoughts of a British crime drama than the location of a university. There are also many businesses, both in Pennsylvania and across the country, that are named “Happy Valley.” Further, it is likely that there are many clothing and sporting goods stores that sell “Happy Valley” themed merchandise. While a trademark in “Happy Valley” could protect Penn State’s reputation and help its coffers, small businesses could be faced with costly litigation and name changes if Penn State aggressively enforces its rights. An unhappy prospect, indeed.
Photo Credit: Andy Locke
Alex Betschen is a graduate of the University at Buffalo School of Law. He was a student attorney at UB’s Civil Liberties and Transparency Clinic, where he worked on cases involving government disclosure of private information and use of hacking tools. He also served as an Editor on the Buffalo Law Review and is an accomplished musician.