Update: Victory at last! The 2014 Class Council has received permission to use the lion illustration on their shirts.

Sophomores in Columbia College are shirtless. They’ve been at Columbia for a year and a half, but still haven’t received any special “Class of 2014” shirts from the Class of 2014 Class Council. Today, the Council explained why the shirts still haven’t arrived in a 900-word letter.

The upshot: Columbia bureaucracy (in this case, Columbia Athletics) is ridiculous. It turns out that Columbia students are not allowed to use any images or illustrations of lions except for the official lion illustration of Columbia Athletics. And this official Columbia Athletics lion may only be used by the Columbia Athletics department or to promote a Columbia Athletics event. Anything else is “brand dilution.”

In other words, Columbia won’t let the 2014 Class Council make shirts with this picture of a lion because they’re worried that you (or an intellectual property judge) will confuse it with this one.

For better or worse, the Council objected to this absurd policy, arguing instead that “the lion, although the mascot of Columbia Athletics, is also the mascot of our University as a whole.” They’ve pledged to continue the fight until the bitter end, even if they don’t ultimately succeed. They know that history will ultimately judge their cause to be right.

And that, Columbia College sophomores, is why you still haven’t received your class shirts.

Dear CC’14

The topic of the class shirts is something that I know many of you are not happy with. It’s a situation that CCSC’14 isn’t happy with either. And it’s a situation in which you deserve to know exactly what has been happening. What we originally thought would be a simple job of creating these shirts has turned into an uphill struggle that to today we’re still trying to resolve.

Freshman year we asked the class to submit designs for our class shirt. After having the class vote by liking their favourite design on Facebook, there was a clear winner (pictured). After the winning design was vectorized, we took this to our council adviser for approval who then passed it on to the administrator who overlooks the use of Columbia logos. We were then given the news that we would not be allowed to use this design as no illustration of a lion is allowed to be used. Only the ‘Athletics Lion’ can be used and that in itself can only be used when promoting an Athletics event. The lion is trademarked by Columbia University’s Board of Trustees, for use by Columbia Athletics. While we understood that the University maintained control over the Athletics logo, we questioned the reasoning behind us being prevented from using a general silhouette of a lion.

At a CCSC meeting last semester, a representative from Athletics spoke about wanting to break down boundaries between students and Athletics, and creating greater community. If this was the case, we wanted to find a middle ground that allowed us to use a general lion design on a shirt that is intended to build class community. This is an issue we know other class councils and student groups have faced, such as ESC’14, which last year had a shirt design rejected because it featured the names of SEAS class of 2014 creating the shape of the Athletics lion head.

Despite this setback, it’s our duty as representatives of the class to advocate for that which we see as important to our class and the Columbia community. Our classmates in 2014 are creative, smart, and independent, and as your class council we want to support this design. So, in order to get to the bottom of this, we found the document from the US Patents and Trademark Office describing the nature of the university’s right to the lion logo and also contacted Columbia’s General Counsel for their opinion of the matter from a legal perspective.

In response to our request for an explanation of Athletics’ right to control the use of the lion image, we were informed that “because Athletics has built up general recognition of a lion image that is associated with Columbia (the version that has been registered with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office), the use of any other lion image in connection with the Columbia name can dilute that brand recognition.  Accordingly, Columbia does have the right to restrict any use of the lion image in connection with the Columbia name to the official image that has been registered.” Moreover, “the kind of control exercised by Columbia over the use of its name and images is common among our peer institutions.” We understand and respect the brand that CU and Athletics has built around the lion logo, but the lion, although the mascot of Columbia Athletics, is also the mascot of our University as a whole. That is why we asked other peer institutions about their experiences with trademark usage.

When our peer institutions within the Ivy League were asked whether they “differentiated between what Marks licensees can use vs. student groups,” the responses showed that Cornell, Brown, UPenn and Princeton do not have restrictions on the Marks used by student groups. Dartmouth does not have restrictions on the Marks used by student group, but Athletics does maintain courtesy approval on use of Athletics Marks. Yale approves Marks by Athletics only on a case-by-case basis. Harvard requires that all Harvard University departments/units, students, staff members and any Harvard affiliates contact their office to request use of name and licensing of Harvard trademarks on any apparel or insignia items.

The issue is not the use of the official Athletics lion, which we have been welcomed to do. Rather, we take issue with the claim that this design would cause trademark dilution — the fear that people who see the 2014 t-shirts might become confused and believe that our COLUMB14 lion is the real Columbia lion, thus harming the brand that Athletics has built up. That is why administration has denied our applications. More importantly, we take issue with the plain fact that the elected student government cannot use a picture of a lion on any apparel. Whether or not Athletics believes it will confuse consumers and dilute the trademark, the situation is still discouraging and upsetting for students who want to promote a healthier, happier, more united, and more spirited student body — one that is proud of the school it belongs to.

This is the information that has become available to CCSC’14 over the past year as we’ve been working on this issue. While we can’t say that there is a foreseeable conclusion, we ensure you that this is the design that you voted for and as such, we’re committed to seeing this through to the end, even if that means we’re unsuccessful. We hope that we’ll soon be able to have you all decked out in class gear.

While we do not necessarily see eye to eye with Athletics in regards to their control of the general lion, we appreciate the work that they put on, both on the field and off. It is our hope that the use of a lion on our shirts would merely strengthen this work that they do.

– CCSC’14