Universities Threaten Virtual Campus Tour Business Over Trademarks
from the hurting-the-help dept
The COVID-19 pandemic has changed and continues to change how life works for many of us in a variety of ways. We’re learning just how underserved America is by our monopolistic broadband providers, for instance. Esports has come into fashion in ways never seen before as well. Work from home has become more normalized and school from home is the bane of parents everywhere, even when it’s the best option available.
And, with so much emphasis made on not traveling and on remaining socially distant, some had an idea to change how prospective university students perform the ritualistic “campus visit” during COVID times. The idea behind LiveCampusTours was to partner with local university students to provide a virtual tour of a school’s campus and facilities.
“We provide live one-on-one virtual tours by high school students given by current undergraduates of the college,” [co-founder Seth] Kugel said.
LiveCampusTours gives families of high school students a glimpse of schools without making a road trip and spending money on travel. Sometimes, Kugel says, they will even offer lower rates for tours if some families can’t afford it.
“We think that this levels the playing field in many ways,” Kugel said.
It seems that the tours from LiveCampusTours are themselves getting positive reviews. The Washington Post noted that the tours are more engaging than the on-campus tours, that the guides from LiveCampusTours aren’t beholden to the schools’ policies for what the tours entail, and that the personalities giving the tours are a step above the in-person version that schools put on to prospective students for free. All in all, LiveCampusTours appears to be providing something of value to the public and is getting high marks for it.
So, of course, some of the schools want to be able to opt out, apparently seeing trademark law as one way to do so.
But not all of the 175 universities they provide tours of have been on board. More than a dozen have issued cease and desist letters. One the latest to do so, the University of Denver.
“Their argument seems to be that we can’t use their name on the website and they think that people will be confused into thinking that these are official tours given by the university and a lot of times that is the concern,” said Kugel.
But the open question is whether any of what LiveCampusTours does actually violates a school’s trademark. I would argue that it absolutely does not, given that the site lists school names not as a brand, but as a list of options where a prospective student can book a tour. It’s simply a list of real-world, factual names. Go to the site and see for yourself: if you try to book a tour, you’re presented with text names of the schools and a thumbnail picture of the campus. There’s no school branding, no crests, no imagery. Just the name of the school and then a list of the tour-providers available at that school.
This is not trademark infringement. In addition, schools are also threatening students who participate in giving tours. From the WaPo post:
Two universities have threatened to discipline students who have already signed up to be guides for LiveCampusTours. I can see why this enterprise might bother otherwise kind and friendly educators when there is so much administrative chaos on campus during the pandemic. But some perspective is in order. The students working as guides like putting a personal spin on their campuses. The high school students who take the tour pay just $39 for a unique personal perspective and spare themselves a long car drive with their parents.
Are complaining institutions as solid as Yale, Stanford, Pepperdine and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill likely to topple as a result of this useful service? Don’t they realize each guide is bragging on a school she or he personally chose?
Not only is it stupid, but it’s an open question whether state universities can even do this as a matter of free speech. Courts in the past have struck down this sort of “licensed tour-givers only” barrier when it came from local governments. Why a state school would be any different is a mystery to me.
So, to summarize, a useful service is being threatened by higher learning institutions during a pandemic for providing a service that keeps kids and their families safe mostly utilizing either trademark law when it doesn’t apply or potentially unconstitutional restrictions on who can offer those kinds of tours, even though these tours essentially advertise the schools to the public. A real banner day for these complaining schools, to be sure.