Image Protection at Universities

at_stanford_universityThe Chronicle of Higher Education (subscription required so no link) notes that Hollywood tends to ask universities and colleges for permission before they set their films or television shows at a particular campus. So Felicity attends University of New York instead of NYU, and Legally Blonde is set at Harvard instead of, wait for it … University of Chicago? Odd but apparently true (my guess is that this turn of events helped the film. No offense to Chicago but as a matter of pop culture Harvard probably takes the prize). One possible culprit according to the article is our friend US News and World Report and the ranking game. Since the report started ranking undergraduate institutions films reference real schools, rather than random State U, 29 percent of the time as opposed to 19 percent before the US News games began. The claim is that references might seem to be endorsements. So Stanford only allows “aspirational” portrayals; read here goody-goody overachievers. The article claims that Stealing Harvard was originally Stealing Stanford, but the farm rejected that idea “Since Stanford is need blind” and the story of needing to steal to go to the school would be unreal (as many fictional stories are). In contrast, Harvard seems to realize that a fictional story is just that and seems more generous about the names and so on. Note that most schools are more restrictive about shooting on campus but may embrace the idea for the fees they can charge.

All well and good, but whether there really is a trademark claim as the article suggests and the schools seem to think (note that Dawson’s Creek also wished to avoid conflict and invented Worthington University as a generic Ivy although ironically shot at Duke) is troubling. The expansive notion of association seems to fuel this perspective. But as Sandy Rierson and I argue in the Confronting the Genericisim Conundrum uses such as these are expressive and in that sense irrelevant to the market transaction trademark is supposed to be about. On a similar wavelength Mark Lemley and Mark McKenna seem to be arguing that other uses of trademarks are not relevant to trademark analysis (To be clear, I have yet to read the paper, and it may be that this sort of use would be actionable according to Mark and Mark (or dare I say it? Dare. Dare. Mark y Mark?).

In short, if one considers the feedback loop in play here, the more expressive uses that are made, the less likely people will think that Standford endorsed a portrayal. In addition, what about more critical commentary that could be set a university? Setting up a system of permissions is dangerous. Last, maybe Harvard has it correct: people are not that stupid. They can tell the difference between a fictional story and a claim to reality. Can’t they?

Image Source: Wikicommons
By: Yukihiro Matsuda from Kyoto (and Osaka), Japan

Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 License

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4 Responses

  1. Devan,

    “Legally Blonde” was originally supposed to be set at Stanford, not Chicago. Amanda Brown, who wrote the book, was my classmate (SLS ’96). From what we heard, Stanford wouldn’t let them film on campus, so the producers changed the setting to Harvard.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    What’s puzzling is that the schools may allow footage to be shot on their highly-recognizable campuses even as their names are fictionalized. Many scenes of Law & Order involving (if memory serves) “Hudson University” were shot on the Columbia University campus, as is obvious from unique McKim, Meade & White architecture in the shots.

    Another data point: “Dealing: Or the Berkeley-to-Boston Forty-Brick Lost-Bag Blues,” a 1972 comedy about a dope-smuggling Harvard Law School student. Would such an explicit identification be allowed, or even attempted, today?

    To say nothing of Thurston Howell III’s withering characterization of a supposed “native” on Gilligan’s Island: “Hmmph. Must be a Yale man.”

  3. Howard Wasserman says:

    The late-’80s television show “Valerie’s Family” had the oldest son (played by Jason Bateman) attend Northwestern University, although the show was not filmed there and the school portrayed was entirely generic. But the college storylines were so ridiculous (in one, Bateman steals the live wolverine that Michigan has a mascot) that students began calling on the administration to get out of the deal with the show, because it was embarrassing to have the school’s name attached to something so stupid.

    Also, St. Elmo’s Fire had the students as graduates of Georgetown, although the on-campus college flashback scenes were filmed at University of Maryland.

  4. Deven says:


    Sorry for the confusion. The Chronicle’s article (hey that rhymes) claims that Chicago was a choice before ending up at Harvard {“Both Stanford University and the University of Chicago rebuffed Legally Blonde and its Valley-girl heroine, so she turned up at Harvard.”). If you can check with Amanda whether that is true, that is still an interesting choice for pop culture: Stanford-Chicago-Harvard?

    (By the way it is Deven not an).

    As for the other two points, I am not saying that representations in culture don’t have some influence on how people think about, well, anything. And I think AJ is correct that certain things done in the past would not be allowed today. Still I would bet that we will look back at some comedy or other fictional portrayal from today and cringe a little. Whether schools should be able to try and manage their images so aggressively is the problem.

    As one option, I suggest that the larger the entity, the less it needs that type of control. And I again offer that Harvard’s point about people being able to discern fact and fiction should be taken to heart. Furthermore, if more fictional representations were out there, wouldn’t more people think that the use was not an endorsement?

    Last note, people, as opposed to institutions, would require a different analysis.