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OFF BEAT: Duke University goes to court over John Wayne estate's bourbon brand

Posted On: Jul. 14, 2014 12:00 AM CST

To many, college and liquor go hand in hand, but Duke University doesn’t see it that way.

That’s why the venerable school’s latest trademark tiff with the estate of legendary actor John Wayne is over the use of — guess what — the moniker “Duke,” this time as it pertains to the naming of a bourbon.

“Consistent with its policies and in order to prevent tarnishment of its brand, (Duke University) does not permit use of confusingly similar marks associated with unapproved goods or services, of uncertain quality and/or unregulated by (Duke University),” the school reportedly told the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office in its notice of opposition.

The Duke’s heirs scoffed at the confusion claim.

“Duke University is not and never has been in the business of producing, marketing, distributing, or selling alcohol,” states the complaint. “On information and belief, the actual and potential customer base of Duke University is vastly different from the customer base of John Wayne Enterprises,” stated the company in its federal court claim filed in response to the university’s trademark objection.

John Wayne Enterprises filed its suit July 2 in the Central District of California, claiming jurisdiction because the college “…actively recruits students there, raises money there, maintains alumni associations there and sells university-related products there.”

The company said in its complaint that the university cannot claim blanket trademark rights to the word Duke.

“Duke University does not own the word ‘Duke’ in all contexts for all purposes,” said the complaint. “Duke is a common word that has been in use for centuries in a wide array of commercial and other applications wholly independent of Duke University. Yet by the actions alleged herein, Duke University seems to think it owns the word ‘Duke’ for all purposes and applications.”

John Wayne Enterprises is seeking a declaratory judgment that confusion is not likely and naming a bourbon Duke will not affect the university’s rights.

The parties have tangled over using Duke to name all manner of goods and service from the foodservice space to gaming, with the school claiming there was potential for confusion among consumers.