As a student, one of the first things I was ever taught was not to steal someone else’s work and call it my own. During a test, I shall not look over Sarah’s shoulder to see what she answered for No. 12. On a group project I shall never claim I did more than my actual share. When writing a book report, I shall not copy and paste lines from Wikipedia or Spark Notes and declare them as my original thoughts in my To Kill A Mockingbird paper.

So why then are high schools, across the country, allowed to take the trademarked logos of other sports teams and use them as their own without one eyelash batted by the local community or casual observers?

The creation of a logo, whether it is for a company or a sports team, takes time and skill to properly craft an image, which can be used to identify something to a passerby with even a simple glance. Schools look for a modernized logo which students, alumni, and community will take pride in. It has become commonplace for high schools to poach logos that have an established pedigree and alter them just enough so it fits the school.

On the left the log for the Elmira (OR) Falcons and on the right the logo for the NFL's Atlanta Falcons
On the left the log for the Elmira (OR) Falcons and on the right the logo for the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons

Elmira High, a school with a population of 483 students located west of Eugene, Oregon, are known as the Falcons and currently uses the logo of the NFL’s Atlanta Falcons following a color palette swap from Atlanta’s red, black, and white to Elmira’s purple, yellow, and black. Elmira’s Athletic Director Brian Brands said it was a booster club decision to use the Atlanta Falcons logo, choosing to modernize their school’s identity. Leaning back in his chair toward a windowsill with dozens of empty Mountain Dew cans stacked on top of one another, Brands said Elmira is in fact in the process of contacting the Atlanta Falcons organization in order to get their approval for the continued use of their logo.

Considering the fact that Elmira’s booster club is hoping to sell t-shirts with the altered Atlanta Falcons logo on it, Atlanta could send a cease and desist order or potentially request to receive some sort of compensation for their logo use since Elmira is profiting off of their trademark. When asked if Elmira would enter into an agreement with Atlanta in order to retain their logo, Brands said the school would most likely stop using the logo and come up with a new design.

When trademarked logos are used by high schools it is often of a pro sports team, in particular an NFL team. Currently in the state of Oregon, there are seventeen high schools infringing on a trademarked logo.

Nine of those schools are using an NFL team’s logo: Centennial (Philadelphia Eagles), Crater (Chicago Bears), Elmira (Atlanta Falcons), Forest Grove (Minnesota Vikings), Hood River Valley (Philadelphia Eagles), Regis (St. Louis Rams), Siuslaw (Minnesota Vikings), Stanfield (Cincinnati Bengals), and Stayton (Philadelphia Eagles). The lone school using a pro sports team logo that isn’t from the NFL is Barlow who’s using the NBA’s Memphis Grizzlies logo.

The reason these schools are allowed to do this openly across the United States is that pro sports teams see negative public relations in the form of Goliath going after David with an arsenal of lawyers and thus do not bother.

In a Washington Post article, Brian McCarthy, an NFL spokesman, said high schools among other youth level teams are allowed to use NFL insignia freely. “It is inspirational for young players to play football under the same name as NFL teams,” McCarthy said.

Colleges and universities, on the other hand, have been stepping up their defense of their trademarks and going after high schools that use their logos without their permission. Four Oregon high schools are currently using trademarked logos belonging to colleges and universities: Bonanza (Fairfield University), Central Christian (Towson University), Ione (University of Louisville), and Rogue Valley Adventist Academy (Saint Joseph University).

Smaller universities such as Georgia Southern and Ohio University as well as larger universities such as the University of Florida, University of Texas, University of Oregon, and Penn State University have all told high schools in recent years to stop using their logo. Seeing the value in their trademark, colleges are making sure that they are protected in the eyes of the law.

Not all colleges ask high schools to stop using their logo and rather enter into a licensing agreement with the school to use the logo for a small fee. Kansas State University is one of these schools. When a school in Virginia asked if they could use the Kansas State Wildcats logo as their own, the university only asked for $1 for every two years the high school used their logo in order to be without fear of trademark infringement.

The logos copied by high schools aren’t just from pro sports teams and large universities that have nationwide pedigree. In some instances, schools dive into the minor leagues to find logos that both fit their school and give the illusion of an original design. These cases are rather tricky because unlike a team such as the Atlanta Falcons, which can weather dozens of high schools across the country using their logo without brand identity repercussions, minor league team logos have less brand identity and thus a school’s use of their logo can cause a much larger impact.

Three schools in the state of Oregon that have recently used the logo of a minor league sports teams located away from the Pacific Northwest are Enterprise High School (Dallas Desperados), Pacific High School (Port Huron Pirates), and Pleasant Hill High School (Quebec Citadelles).

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Pacific, which has changed back to its’ old logo recently under a new administration due to demand from the local community to maintain school history, had been using an altered version of the Port Huron Pirates logo. The Port Huron (MI) Pirates were a charter member of the Great Lakes Indoor Football League in 2006 before moving to the Continental Indoor Football League in 2007 and changing their name to the Michigan Pirates before folding at the end of the 2007 season.

Pacific High School Principal and Athletic Director Krista Nieraeth says she never heard of the Port Huron Pirates and deflected to the previous administration as the ones who changed Pacific’s logo to the one currently representing their school still on the Oregon School Activities Association official website.

In an email from Nieraeth following an interview on this matter, the previous administration changed the Pacific Pirates logo used in the past because it “was too similar to a school near us (Marshfield). The administration at the time wanted something that set us apart from them and did research with a local graphic design company to find the mascot that you see on the OSAA website.” When asked for the name of the graphic design company, Nieraeth said she did not have the name of it.

On the left the logo for the Pleasant Hill (OR) Billies and on the right the jersey for the AHL's Quebec Citadelles.
On the left the logo for the Pleasant Hill (OR) Billies and on the right the jersey for the AHL’s Quebec Citadelles.

Another school where the current administration has no idea that they are using someone else’s trademarked logo as their own is Pleasant Hill High. Known as the Billies, Pleasant Hill’s teams are currently using the logo of the Quebec Citadelles, an American Hockey League franchise affiliated with the NHL’s Montreal Canadiens from 1999-2002 before they merged into the Hamilton Bulldogs franchise. What makes this case different from Elmira and Pacific is unlike those two schools, Pleasant Hill is using an exact copy of the Citadelles logo with zero alterations; the color scheme already fits Pleasant Hill’s combination of navy blue, white, and gold.

Pleasant Hill Athletic Director Erik Hoberg’s first knowledge of the Quebec Citadelles came during an interview when he was shown an image of the Citadelles and the logo on their hockey jerseys.

After seeing the image of the Citadelles jersey, Hoberg recalled, “seeing this logo on a mouse pad that someone actually had as a Citadelle,” which puts into question the knowledge Hoberg has of the Quebec Citadelles existence.

A major issue one might have is regarding high schools stealing trademarked logos to represent their school, which is a form of plagiarism. If a student plagiarizes their work, they’ll receive a significant punishment that goes all the way up to expulsion at certain schools across the United States. Why then are the institutions that enforce these rules allowed to commit an act similar to forging a signature?

Brands believes Elmira using an altered Atlanta Falcons logo is not a form of plagiarism. “If you’re talking about composing an essay or something which involves…creating thoughts, I think it’s a little bit different…because at least to me, it’s a symbol. We’re talking about a falcon, we’re talking about the Atlanta Falcons, the Elmira Falcons…when it comes to that sort of thing my guess is there’s a lot of similar, people use a similar type of picture for their mascot…I think that’s a little bit different then the academic world where kids are being asked to create something…it’s a little bit different.”

When asked if Pleasant Hill will change its’ logo now that they are aware of their infringing on someone else’s trademark and thus creating an ethical dilemma, Hoberg said, “At this moment no. We have too much invested in it especially when it’s the center of our football field. And, like I said, I don’t know if any contact had been made prior to see if we could use the logo.” Later when asked when it would be financially feasible for Pleasant Hill to replace the logo on the football field as well as their other investments using the logo, Hoberg stated at least five more years.

From a legal standpoint, it is important for trademark owners to get involved when they are aware of someone using their trademark without permission. There are three options for a team to take when they’ve found out a high school is using their logo. The trademark owner can enter into a license with the school to use their logo for some sort a fee, the owner can tell the school not to use the logo, or the owner can ignore the fact that the school is using the logo.

The fault with the last option, one which a strong majority of pro teams take, is if a trademark owner ignores a trademark infringement long enough in one instance then it will become very difficult, if not impossible, for the trademark owner to prosecute anyone in the future for using their logo. Essentially, if the Atlanta Falcons did not want Elmira to use their logo then they’d also have to say that to every other high school in America that is using their logo or else Atlanta has no legal standing and Elmira can go on using it if they want.

A program that hopes to decrease the amount of schools using trademarked logos is the National Federation of High Schools Licensing Program. Partnering with Licensing Resource Group, the NFHS Licensing Program aims to give high schools the opportunity to rebrand themselves to avoid trademark infringement for free through one of their partners Spirit Shop, says Tim Sears of LRG Prep.

The NFHS Licensing Program allows schools to merchandise their products through one of their retail partners such as Wal-Mart, Target, Walgreens, and Kmart. If a school in the program happens to have a trademark infringing logo then the licensees will not produce retail products with the logo on it and simply “use the school’s name and nickname on merchandise” said Sears.

It has yet to be determined whether or not the pace in which high schools commit trademark infringement will diminish with the practice still being a norm among schools across the country.

One option schools are resorting to in order to have an original logo of their own is to open up the designing of a new logo to the students of the school. When asked if they would be open to this idea, both Brands and Hoberg agreed this would be a great idea when it comes time to changing their logo for whatever reason. Here’s to rebuilding the American high school system; one plagiarized logo at a time.