Harvard Moves Forward in CS50 Trademark Application

The letters “TM” could eventually adorn the T-shirts and posters seen around campus for Harvard’s flagship undergraduate computer science course, now that “CS50” is one step closer to receiving a trademark on its name, according to public filings with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Both the University and CS50’s instructor, David J. Malan ’99, have made efforts to trademark the popular course’s name, though now only Harvard’s application remains active. Harvard’s push to trademark the course’s name faced difficulties last April when the USPTO denied portions of the University’s application, saying that “CS50” and “CS50X” were too similar to “CSO50” and “CSO40,” conferences hosted by International Data Group, a Boston-based technology and media organization.

CS50 Lecture
David J. Malan '99 in lecture.

In early September, though, the University filed documents with USPTO indicating it had entered into a coexistence agreement with the International Data Group, in which both parties agreed their respective trademarks were distinctive enough to coexist without causing confusion for consumers.

“Based on the differences in the marks and the nature of each party’s services [...] Harvard’s use and pending registration of the CS50 and CS50x marks, and IDG’s use and registration of the CSO40 and CSO50 marks as set forth above, do not and will not create a likelihood of confusion among consumers,” the agreement reads.

Coexistence agreements can help expedite patent applications in situations like CS50’s, although they do not necessarily guarantee success, according to Georgetown Law professor and trademark expert Rebecca L. Tushnet ’95.

“The agreement of the parties is treated as some kind of evidence that they can coexist, but it’s still the case that for [trademark] registration purposes, the examiner still asks can they coexist without confusion,” Tushnet said. “It’s a way to let both of them go forward, and usually they do it in order to get a trademark registration or have them both appear.”

While coexistence agreements are not uncommon, Tushnet said, they are not generally preferred by applicants in that they often represent a kind of “concession on both sides” or set parameters for each party’s use of the similar names.

CS50, officially titled Computer Science 50: “Introduction to Computer Science I,” has grown rapidly in recent years. It has seen high enrollments, along with an expansion to Yale last September and a foray into high school computer science curricula. Its office hours have filled Widener Library’s Loker Reading Room and inspired a mock protest. This year, the course can be completed almost entirely virtually, and students have access to even more extensive office hours.

Now that the USPTO has received Harvard’s filings, it will consider the evidence presented and decide whether CS50 and CSO50 are indeed distinct enough to coexist. This process could take a few months, Tushnet said.

Malan did not respond to request for comment, while University spokesperson David J. Cameron declined to comment on Harvard’s efforts to trademark the course’s name.

–Staff writer Jonathan G. Adler can be reached at jonathan.adler@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonathanGAdler.

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