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.

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Companies: livecampustours

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Comments on “Universities Threaten Virtual Campus Tour Business Over Trademarks”

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Anonymous Coward says:

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.

Yeaaahhhh… Maybe some stodgy educators are irritated, but ima go out on a limb and suggest it is the useless boards of trustees and lawyers (if there is any difference there), who are by vast majority nothing even close to educators and generally full-time assholes who get such positions because they are already rapacious businesspeople.

But that’s just me.

Anonymous Coward says:

Simple solution.

Sounds like LiveCampusTours just needs to just add a "Not Welcome Here" category and let the market sort it out. This pandemic has already pulled back the curtain to reveal the absurdity of costs, exclusivity and questionable policies. Sounds like the whiners are now asking for a shovel to maybe dig their own grave? Might as well help them.

That Anonymous Coward (profile) says:

But but but our image!!!!!!

They are terrified that someone might see something that might cause someone somewhere to get upset.

Schools fail to adapt, someone fills the void, schools engage the throw all the law at them maybe we can scare them away.
I mean they are known for their forward thinking…
charging virtual only students for their parking pass…
letting the students move in, pay nonrefundable rent, close dorm…
fees & such for on campus events that they admit are just below the line fees to keep the system going. (cable who knew)

The schools want to offer a perfectly scripted and produced by a PR firm video & then charge kids considering their school a nice fee to let them have the tour to decide if they want to some here or go there to get screwed over.

something something ethics, threatening legal action that is completely baseless should get someone a bitchslap to stop this behavior but…

Tanner Andrews (profile) says:

the open question is whether any of what LiveCampusTours does actually violates a school’s trademark

The trademark claim as to listing and depicting schools is particularly weak. If I sell cold drinks, I will surely list the brands of cola I stock: Coke, Pepsi, RC, Jolt, whatever. I am using the brand names to denote products from particular vendors, which is exactly the intended use for trademarks.

I can go farther, and sponsor the "Jolt Challenge", wherein I ask people to compare one brand to another, ane name the brands. Even if I am not associated wth one or more of the brands being offered, I can show their products and allow potential customers to compare.

I see no userful distinction here. Yes, pushing back will surely cost the virtual tour company some money. Bringing suit in Federal is not cheap. However, being shut down by delicate flower arranging schools is also bad for the business model.

John85851 (profile) says:

Tour not available

I think the tour company should list every campus, but then add a notice to the ones filing this suit that says "Tour not available due to legal reasons".
Then let prospective students decide whether they want to go to that school even if they can’t go on a tour… I’m guessing plenty of student won’t go. But I’m not a university marketing department, which probably has plenty of other ways of convincing people that they have a beautiful campus.

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