from the think-of-the-children! dept
We've occasionally seen instances in the past in which educational institutions are threatened with trademark lawsuits or actually go through them, though those suits usually feature the worst trademark bullies out there (hi, Olympics!). Rarer is seeing some small business owner pestering schools with trademark disputes. Still rarer are cases in which those businesses are actually involved in the business of trying to promote education.
Yet that's exactly what we have in the case of Springboards to Education, which has filed nine trademark suits against seven school districts, a non-profit, and a library.
The concept of incentivizing students to read across school districts in the Rio Grande Valley and around the state has recently taken an ambiguous turn as some districts are facing lawsuits claiming trademark infringement for using descriptions such as “Millionaire Reader” or “Millionaire Reading Club.”
So far, the defendants include the school districts of McAllen, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo, Mission, La Joya and Houston, as well as the public charter schools IDEA and KIPP. The education nonprofit Teach For America is also included, as well as the library supply company Demco. Each lawsuit presents evidence of Springboard’s owner and creator Johnny Lopez’s trademarks, which include the phrases Millionaire Reader, trademarked in 2012; Read a Million Words, trademarked in 2011; Millionaire’s Reading Club, trademarked in 2012; Million Dollar Reader, trademarked in 2013; and Feel Like a Million Bucks, trademarked in 2015.
We'll leave the non-profit and library aside for a moment, as I cannot say for certain that either are not engaged in any kind of commerce revolving around Springboard's trademarks. That said, the gall involved in suing schools for trying to get kids to engage in reading is matched only by the silliness of it. These schools should simply be able to stand up in court, inform the court that they are educating children instead of engaging in any sort of commerce, and that should satisfy the court as proof that none of them are competing in a marketplace with Springboard, rendering the trademark suit neutered. However, none of this kept Springboard from firing off a cease-and-desist letter to these schools, shortly before filing suit.
“It has been brought up to our attention that your school district, Pharr-San Juan-Alamo ISD, has been using the trademarks Millionaire Reader, Million Dollar Reader … and/or any combination of words similar to our client’s trademarks in association with the marketing or sale of your products,” the letter states. “We demand that you cease and desist in any further use of the Springboard Trademarks.”
At least one of the schools in question understands how trademark law works, it seems, and is preparing for the exact defense that I had recommended above.
The district has already filed a motion to dismiss the claims, said school district attorney Ben Castillo, adding the district is not using any of its materials for commercial gain.
“There’s no commercial gain,” he said. “School districts use these to promote students, not to make money. … We have stopped using that phrase once we received that cease and desist, so at this point in time we feel like there’s no damage to Springboard.”
Meanwhile, we now live in a world where a private business has sued a public school district in order to keep it from promoting reading to students in a specific way. Delightful.