Is my university going to sue me?
October 1, 2009 8:24 AM   Subscribe

Is my university going to sue me?

I go to a major US University. Everyone at my school is fed up with the high prices of textbooks at our bookstore--articles about the high prices in our school newspaper are a common, recurring feature.

I would like to make a comparison shopping website for my school.
Obviously, students use / / to buy used or discounted new textbooks. My website would be different in that students could actually enter their classes to find the required and suggested materials, and then shown the various prices from other online retailers.

I would setup affiliate accounts with the various merchants and make a small percentage on each sale. I figure this income will help cover some of the costs, but I'm not expecting to get rich.

Now onto my question--will my university sue me? The school's online bookstore url is: "{school_name}"

I registered "{short_school_name}". I searched the US Patent and Trademark Office and my school does have {school_short_name} trademarked (as far as I can tell, their is an official listing for it registered to my school). If I compete with the regular bookstore using this url, are they going to sue me?

Secondly, I registered another domain name that is book{school_mascot_abbreviation}.com. Frustratingly enough, it also appears that the mascot abbreviation is also trademarked, but it includes an apostrophe at the beginning and an 's' at the end to make it plural. Since my url is one-off, can they still claim trademark infringement?

I wouldn't put it past my school (notorious for being run as a corporation) to be a little upset that someone is competing with them. What's the likelihood of that they try to stop me? Do I have any recourse? I think this would genuinely help students and could be a good alternative. Any input is appreciated.

Thank you!

Anon for obvious reasons.
posted by anonymous to Work & Money (26 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Why are you exposing your new business to unnecessary risk by soliciting legal advice in a public forum? The intricacies of trademark law are such that only a paid legal professional will be able to answer your question to any useful degree.

Maybe your University has a legal aid clinic you could approach for advice or a referral.
posted by felix betachat at 8:31 AM on October 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

I went to a school that had a lot of trademark infringement issues. Yes, a student who did this at my alma mater would definitely have gotten into trouble (and a couple did). It's more likely that the escalation path goes threat to expel->expulsion->threat to sue->lawsuit than jumping directly to lawsuit. Especially since they can expel you pretty much for free, and for whatever reason they want.
posted by phoenixy at 8:31 AM on October 1, 2009

I am not a lawyer, but I would reconsider the name. Maybe, school color+mascot+books (
posted by spaltavian at 8:33 AM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

Why would you bother using such a trademark? If your market is students and your added value is comparison shopping, why not pick a distinctive name? You're going to promote it by word of mouth anyway.

I wouldn't put it past my school (notorious for being run as a corporation)

You know just enough legal vocabulary to sound like an ass. I mean this in the nicest way possible. Please stop dicking around with law-lite before you get into trouble, because while it sounds great to drop unfamiliar words to impressionable undergrads, nobody - especially lawyers - will be able to take you seriously.
posted by Inspector.Gadget at 8:36 AM on October 1, 2009

IANAL, but schools have big guns when it comes to protecting their names. If there is a possibility that a student might mistake your site for the school site; then the school can probably have your site shut down.

For example; I went to Texas Woman's University, which everyone refers to as TWU. TWU is on things you can buy at the campus store. Their bookstore is run by Follett, and redirects from If I created a site that was twubookstore...I'm betting money that Follettcould shut it down in a heartbeat.

Universities usually sign contracts with companies that have bookstores on campus, or that are the "official" bookstore. Those companies are usually even more aggressive than universities, because they're making a metric butt-ton of money from a captive audience, and do not want to share. They may also have clauses in their contracts that require the university to pursue anyone who interferes with their monopoly.

So, I would probably ask an IP attorney before I invested any time or money into this project at the url examples you've given. University contracts are public record, but it often takes legal chops to pry them out into the open.
posted by dejah420 at 8:39 AM on October 1, 2009

I, of course, am not a lawyer, but it seems that you're attempting to trade off on the well-known name of the school in an effort to make it seem like you are affiliated with the school. Why don't you just leave the school's name and their mascot off your URL's name and launch it with something you own outright.
posted by inturnaround at 8:40 AM on October 1, 2009 [2 favorites]

Yeah, it it wouldn't just be the school gunning for you, but the bookstore as well. Universities enter into contracts with companies (Barnes and Noble, Follett, etc) for those companies to run their campus bookstores. While everyone is aware that students can use the internet to buy book cheaper, the official party line is Bookstore Only. Anything that smacks of the university steering customers away from the bookstore, even if it's a student run initiative, will set off the lawyers on both sides.

My academic library is required to deal with the campus bookstore, even though we have Amazon at our fingertips and a Borders down the street. This causes some frustration when the bookstore is out of copies of certain books that we know we can get at the bookstore, but we have to grin and bear it.

Instead, why not go after the faculty? They're the ones who pick the books that the bookstore stocks, so maybe they should be encouraged to pick cheaper options. You can try to work with a few faculty (or departments) on a one-on-one level to see what you can do about reducing costs. If that fails, start to make a list of the cost of books per course per semester. Work with students in said courses to find out how much the required books are actually used. This happened at my school once and it was a Big Deal when students pointed out that they were expected to pay 100$ for a book of which they used two chapters. Of course, this lead to 'custom editions' which were cheaper for the students individually to buy, but reduced their ability to sell their books back at the end of the semester as every new year required a new custom edition.

Talk to your school library as well. When the cost of books began to shoot up a few years ago, we decided to start purchasing two copies of every book required for every course. Some courses, we buy three.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:43 AM on October 1, 2009

The fact that you're using the school name seems like the biggest potential source of problems.

This. Certainly you can use other SEO tactics, copy, advertising etc. to find your target audience is without violating the school's copyright. (Which is, of course, what you're proposing to do. Incidentally, re: run like a corporation -- nonprofit institutions are also entitled to protect their intellectual property.)
posted by chesty_a_arthur at 8:45 AM on October 1, 2009

Any large university is going to have a Licensing Department whose main purpose is to only allow authorized use of the school's name and trademarks. Google "{school_name} licensing". They probably won't sue you, but they'll certainly send you a cease and desist letter. In theory, you could contact them and ask permission but it's extremely unlikely they'll give it, and if they did, you would have to pay for it.
posted by smackfu at 9:15 AM on October 1, 2009

The key is to expand your field. Why limit yourself to one school? Try {geographic area of school textbooks}.com. Then list at least one textbook from another nearby college, or community college that feeds into your school. Reduces risk. Get an affiliate at the other school.
posted by Ironmouth at 9:17 AM on October 1, 2009

IANAL - but you seem to be suggesting that you want to use the school's trademarked names to compete with them... that's exactly the behavior trademark law was designed to prevent.

If I were the school, or the bookstore, I'd sue you. Immediately.
posted by TravellingDen at 9:39 AM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

The key is to expand your field. Why limit yourself to one school? Try {geographic area of school textbooks}.com. Then list at least one textbook from another nearby college, or community college that feeds into your school. Reduces risk. Get an affiliate at the other school.

Seconding this. It might entail more work, but it also increases your potential market.

Keep in mind, though, that getting information about required textbooks might be more difficult than you think. At the college where I TA'd, the university implemented policies to try to strong arm professors into listing their book choices with only the university book store. In response, some rebellious professors would refuse to list anything, or would list books they weren't using.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 9:43 AM on October 1, 2009

Yeah, this is exactly what trademark law is for. Rethink this.
posted by modernnomad at 9:50 AM on October 1, 2009

Buying a new domain name will be cheaper than a paying a lawyer for an hour of his time.
posted by clearlydemon at 9:54 AM on October 1, 2009

Think bigger, this is a really good idea that you could expand to include other schools. Why limit yourself to a domain specific to your school?
posted by thewalrusispaul at 9:59 AM on October 1, 2009

Somebody at my university put up this site a few years ago. It's just for listing and searching books but AFAIK, they have never had any trouble with the school, even though the domain names are similar. It's more like what odinsdream describes above than what you're suggesting, though. You have gotten a lot of good advice here, you may want to scale down your idea or otherwise scrap it.
posted by futureisunwritten at 10:08 AM on October 1, 2009

I just provided a centralized place for people to post their requests or offers.
posted by odinsdream at 10:41 AM on October 1

Yeah, do this and pick a name that is geographically based and nothing to do with your specific school. Run some ads on it to offset your cost.
posted by soelo at 10:58 AM on October 1, 2009

from the original poster:
Thank you for all the constructive feedback. I have realized the domain is too similar and I could more easily market this to other schools if I don't pigeon-hole myself to my school.

I'm not looking for legal advice, but have another, follow-up question.

I would like to tailor the site towards students by having them enter their class information to find the appropriate books. This information is published in various public places on my universities general website and bookstore website. Is there any reason I CAN'T use this information (ie MATH 200, ENGL 199, etc.) ?
posted by mathowie at 11:43 AM on October 1, 2009

Besides legal issues, think about long-term potential--what if you would like to expand to cover more schools someday? This idea isn't a bad one, and you might get lucky and strike upon a profitable business plan that you could expand upon. A generic, non-trademarked, non-specific name would definitely be to your advantage in this situation, and you could use your university's name to set up something like (or something along those lines).

(And if you do register and become incredibly wealthy, I expect a nice bottle of whiskey for every million dollars you make).
posted by Benjy at 12:54 PM on October 1, 2009

The school I went to took action against a site which was just a forum about the school because it included the short_name of the school. So, even if they don't sue you, if they find out who you are you could face other disciplinary action.
posted by beerbajay at 1:45 PM on October 1, 2009

The school I go to would NOT let my department's student association post that type of info - class names/numbers, syllabae, outlines, reading lists - on the association's website. It was before my time but I believe the reason was some sort of copyright concern. On the other hand, the association's site was hosted for free on the school's servers, so what they said, went.
posted by scribbler at 3:00 PM on October 1, 2009

The non-university-sanctioned bookstore at my school only includes major numbers, class numbers, instructor names, and book lists. No course names at all. I can't help but think that they got harassed into that at some point, since they've always had a fairly antagonistic relationship with the official bookstore and the university.
posted by smackfu at 3:38 PM on October 1, 2009

[name of city]
posted by Night_owl at 4:08 PM on October 1, 2009

My University has a bookstore. There is a "Campus Bookstore" across the street. They come to campus & hand out fliers, and do other marketing. They do use the published textbook listing.

Make your site as honest and straighforward as possible, and it will work to your advantage.

This is not the official bookstore of U of MeFi. No way. This is the Affordable Alternative to Full Price Books at the U. We've done everything we can to help make your textbook purchase as affordable as possible. You won't have any trouble telling the difference between the Affordable Alternative and the Official Bookstore. Just check your wallet.
posted by theora55 at 4:17 PM on October 1, 2009 [1 favorite]

You don't need to use the name of your university to have a successful alternative bookstore. On my campus, while a lot of people went to the university bookstore just out of laziness, there were two others that were incredibly popular and had much better deals, and neither of them used the university name in any fashion. Something memorable is I think your best bet, but it doesn't have to be the name of the university. And in fact, if the actual official bookstore is crap, do you really want to be confused with them?

Where I went, at least at the time and in the crowds I was a part of, people knew upon mention of "DuBois" that you meant the bookstore, and that name had a much more positive reputation than the university bookstore did.

You could save yourself a lot of trouble in the long run by just giving it a memorable name but that isn't trademarked by your university.
posted by larkspur at 5:13 PM on October 1, 2009

IANAL and this is somewhat unrelated, but are you aware of the Higher Ed Opportunity Act, Section 133? As of July 2010, US institutions will be required to provide textbook information (including estimated -- usually "sticker" price) to students when they register for classes online. Read more about HEOA Sec 133 here.

Mostly I'm saying that students will have even more reasons to comparison shop even sooner in the process as of next Fall.
posted by wildeepdotorg at 6:33 PM on October 2, 2009

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