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.


Reader Comments

Subscribe: RSS

View by: Time | Thread


  • identicon
    Capt ICE Enforcer, 2 Aug 2016 @ 4:06am

    F and U

    Wow. I thought the letters F and U were in every college in the US. Especially the billing department.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Sadalbari, 2 Aug 2016 @ 5:07am

      Re: F and U

      Too bad there doesn't seem to be school actually named Florida University. It would be amusing to see their initials on their sports teams and other things.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        New Mexico Mark, 2 Aug 2016 @ 6:15am

        Re: Re: F and U

        Reminds me of one of my favorite movie quotes, from the original "Odd Couple" movie.

        Oscar: I hate little notes on my pillow. Like this morning. ‘We’re all out of cornflakes. F.U.’ It took me three hours to figure out that ‘F.U.’ was Felix Unger.

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • identicon
          Anonymous Coward, 2 Aug 2016 @ 11:27am

          Re: Re: Re: F and U

          I was taking a class on analog VLSI design (designing circuits in silicon) and the professor was a foreigner. During that days lesson we were talking about frequency curves.

          The value we were working with was a function of u. All during the lecture he kept saying FU (instead of F of u) to the class and everytime we would break out laughing only to get quizzical looks from the foreign students and professor.

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • identicon
    Eponymous Coward, 2 Aug 2016 @ 6:03am

    Ehh... I don't see how a difference in meaning implies that people won't confuse them. Look around the Internet and tell me nobody is confusing "your" and "you're". Seems a pretty weak legal position to argue that the dictionary definition of a word somehow precludes confusion.

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • icon
      MDT (profile), 2 Aug 2016 @ 6:07am

      Re: Not Reading Article

      It's not how many idiots on the internet can be confused by the names. It is how many potential customers can be confused. The potential customers are high school graduates, who spend a GREAT DEAL OF TIME deciding what university to go to (granted, it might be research into academic credentials, or sports program, or male to female student ratio, depending on what they want out of college). But given all the other F?U universities in Florida, adding one more to the mix isn't going to increase potential for confusion by any appreciable amount.

      Which you'd know if you read the @#*#$& article.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

      • identicon
        Eponymous Coward, 2 Aug 2016 @ 9:19am

        Re: Re: Not Reading Article

        Did you read it? And if so, how did you miss the 2/3 of it that was the judge talking about dictionary definitions?

        reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

        • icon
          MDT (profile), 6 Aug 2016 @ 5:01pm

          Re: Re: Re: Not Reading Article

          Yep, I read it.

          Not sure how the judge commenting on dictionary meanings takes away from the fact that how many idiots on the internet can confuse things because they can't be bothered to read the @$#*($#&* dictionary has anything to do with the fact the case has nothing to do with that and everything to do with with how potential customers might be confused (Giant Hint : They won't be).

          Also not sure what it has to do with you not comprehending the difference...

          reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

    • identicon
      Kraz, 2 Aug 2016 @ 11:32am

      Re:

      Ehh... I don't see how a difference in meaning implies that people won't confuse them.

      Yeah, like people confuse dogs and cats all the time. Both names are 3 letters, consonant, vowel, consonant. Very confusing.

      reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]

  • icon
    JustMe (profile), 2 Aug 2016 @ 8:47am

    I like the implied FU swear in an appeals court ruling

    "one more school identifying itself with an acronym containing the letters F and U"

    reply to this | link to this | view in chronology ]


Add Your Comment

Have a Techdirt Account? Sign in now. Want one? Register here
Get Techdirt’s Daily Email
Use markdown for basic formatting. HTML is no longer supported.
  Save me a cookie
Follow Techdirt
Special Affiliate Offer

Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Essential Reading
Techdirt Deals
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Techdirt Insider Chat
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads
Recent Stories
Advertisement
Report this ad  |  Hide Techdirt ads

Close

Email This

This feature is only available to registered users. Register or sign in to use it.