Florida International University Loses Trademark Appeal Against Florida National University
from the snark-included dept
It’s too rare that we see courts get trademark questions right on the merits of actual customer confusion, so it’s nice to highlight some examples of when they do get it right. It’s even more fun when the court takes the time to add just a dash of snark and narrow-eyed language into its opinion. Such appears to be the case in an appeals ruling between Florida International University, a public college, and Florida National University, a for-profit institution. FIU sued FNU for trademark infringement and, having lost its initial case, took it to appeal. The claim FIU made is that potential students were confused between the two schools based solely on the similarity of their names.
The appeals court was not impressed.
A U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of Florida National University, prompting the public university to appeal to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals. But in a 50-page ruling, a three-judge panel of the appeals court upheld the district judge’s decision. In part, the appeals court pointed to 12 other schools in the state that use the words “Florida” and “University” in their names, including Florida Memorial University in Miami-Dade.
The court went on in its decision to patiently provide the definitions of the words “national” and “international” for FIU’s lawyers. You can practically hear the sneer in the text as it responds to FIU’s assertion that “National” and “International” are too close so as to constitute a trademark concern.
The district court acknowledged that “Florida International University” and “Florida National University” (and the acronyms FIU and FNU) are similar in sound and appearance, but determined that the difference in the meaning of the words “national” and “international” outweighed any similarity. It explained that, in common usage, the two terms are used as antonyms to describe the domestic or overseas character of something and, therefore, they are not “so closely aligned as to create a likelihood of confusion among consumers.” Moreover, the court found, other universities use very similar acronyms and, therefore, FNU’s acronym does not increase the likelihood that a reasonable consumer would be confused as to the source of the services that it represents. FIU disagrees because, it argues, the names are quite similar and certain dictionaries define “national” as a subset of “international.”
Again we remain unpersuaded. For starters, the parties stipulated that Merriam-Webster’s On-line Dictionary classifies “international” as a “near antonym” of national. The district court reasonably attributed more weight to the meanings than to the appearance and sound of the marks, especially in a field where so many competitors have names that appear and sound similar. Moreover, in a crowded field of similar acronyms, the district court reasonably found that the addition of one more school identifying itself with an acronym containing the letters F and U would not materially add to the confusion. This is especially true in a field like post-secondary education, where the primary consumers — potential students (and likely their parents too) — generally spend a substantial amount of time and energy learning about their options before choosing a school and are, therefore, unlikely to be confused by similar names. See Welding Servs., 509 F.3d at 1361. Accordingly, we can find no clear error in the district court’s determination that the names and acronyms were not confusingly similar.
And with that, the bickering between two educational institutions over non-distinct marks in a crowded marketplace absolutely filled with similarly named entities should come to a close. Unless FIU needs to be taken back to school on the plain meaning of words, that is.