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Trademark case ruffles Toronto Blue Jays’ feathers

Logos of the Creighton University Blue Jays and Toronto Blue Jays baseball team

A small, 136-year-old Jesuit university in Nebraska says it is not backing down as it faces a trademark battle with Major League Baseball's Toronto Blue Jays.

Creighton University in Omaha, which has 8,000 students, has always called its sports teams the Bluejays, and the school unveiled a new blue-jay-head logo last year.

But in a notice of opposition filed last week with the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board, lawyers for Rogers Blue Jays Baseball Partnership said the design was too similar to the Toronto team's trademarked logos. The school's logo, the baseball team alleged, will both "cause confusion" when used on merchandise and "falsely suggest a connection" between the university and the MLB team.

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In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Creighton University general counsel James Jansen said the school is in talks with the Toronto team over the issue. But he defended Creighton's depiction of its mascot, "Billy Bluejay," and said the idea that the logo was too similar to Toronto's never came up when it was unveiled.

"We've been the Creighton Bluejays since 1878, and we've had a number of different variations of Billy Bluejay, so this is a remake," Mr. Jansen said. "I don't know how many different ways you can depict a bluejay head. … There's nothing that should confuse Creighton University with the Toronto organization."

Mr. Jansen said it was too early to say how things would turn out: "We aren't even close to a situation where either party is asking the other to cease and desist using the marks or anything like that. … It's way too early in the ball game to be speculating anything about the outcome of this."

Sportswear merchandising is an important revenue source for many U.S. universities as it is for major-league teams. Creighton has 14 varsity teams: six men's teams, including baseball, basketball and golf, and eight women's teams, including softball, basketball and volleyball. All are nicknamed the Bluejays.

The men's basketball team has made frequent appearances in the NCAA tournament in recent years, giving the program a certain amount of profile. The school updated its team logo when it switched to Big East Athletic Conference last year.

Toronto trademark lawyer Cynthia Rowden of Bereskin & Parr LLP said on its face it appeared that the Toronto Blue Jays may have a case about the visual similarity between the logos.

But a key legal issue will be whether the use of the logo would in fact cause confusion, or realistically imply to anyone a false link between the two organizations.

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"At first blush, without knowing anything more about the case, there seems to be some reasonable grounds for the [Toronto] Blue Jays to be concerned about this," Ms. Rowden said.

A spokesman for the Blue Jays was not available for comment on Thursday.

Both university and pro sports teams have in the past resorted to court action to protect trademarks, largely to crack down on counterfeit goods that make use of team logos.

But the most prominent fight involving trademark law and sports in recent years was the successful, but symbolic, move by Native American activists in June to have the U.S. Trademark Trial and Appeal Board cancel the trademarks of the Washington Redskins football team because the name is "disparaging."

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About the Author
Toronto City Hall Reporter

Jeff Gray is The Globe and Mail’s Toronto City Hall reporter. He has worked at The Globe since 1998. From 2010 to 2016, he was the law reporter in Report on Business, covering Bay Street law firms and white-collar crime. He won an honourable mention at the National Magazine Awards for investigative journalism in 2010. More

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