One of the jobs of the Art Institute’s crack legal department is to help protect the museum’s trademarks. A trademark, as you may already know, is any word, name, symbol, or other device that indicates the source of goods or services. Trademark law protects a trademark owner against the use of a trademark (or any confusingly similar mark) in a way that is likely to cause confusion. A trademark owner, however, must act vigilantly to protect its trademarks.
One way to help protect a trademark is to apply for a federal trademark registration, which, if successful, entitles the owner to exclusive national use of the mark and the ability to use the cool ® symbol. The Art Institute of Chicago has federal registrations for several of its trademarks, including our name, our red square logo, and each of the iconic lion statues that guard the Michigan Avenue entrance. The image above shows one of our certificates of registration.
From time to time, as a part of the Art Institute’s efforts to protect its trademarks, I send “friendly” (to a lawyer, at least) letters to companies that use our trademarks without permission. We aren’t interested in stopping people from snapping personal photos of the lions, but we cannot allow commercial vendors to wrongly imply that the Art Institute offers, sponsors or endorses goods or services that we have never even seen before.
One recent unauthorized commercial product that crossed the line was a t-shirt featuring one of the lions (our registered trademark) over the text “The Art Institute of Chicago” (our registered trademark), along with the phrase “Show Me the Monet” (unlikely to ever be an Art Institute trademark). Concerned that the public might believe that the shirt was sold or approved by the Art Institute, I sent a letter to the vendor which went something like this: “Dear vendor … our valuable registered trademarks … unauthorized commercial product … likelihood of confusion … knock it off.”
The story has a happy ending, involving no blood or tears. The vendor acknowledged its mistake and offered to do whatever was necessary to secure approval of the shirt. The business people in our Museum Shop worked out an arrangement with the vendor involving some changes to the shirt and a formal license agreement. And thus were the Art Institute’s trademarks and the t-shirt-buying public kept safe from the likelihood of confusion.