Harvard Jeans USA had a wide target audience. Who wouldn’t want a pair of jeans sold by America’s premier institute of higher learning? But Harvard Jeans USA, which produced apparel featuring phrases such as “Harvard” and “Cambridge, MA,” is located in the Philippines, and has nothing to do with the school.
Harvard’s brand has long drawn worldwide acclaim. No matter where you travel, you may come across the crimson color coupled with the distinctive Veritas crest. In some places, the Harvard brand is a fashion symbol, its reputation largely divorced from its role as an educational institution.
But who has the right to use Harvard’s name? Over the years, University officials have committed legal resources toward maintaining control over the Harvard trademark. In doing so, they have amassed a small army of lawyers, even establishing an office called the Harvard Trademark Program. The Program’s stated purpose is to find, dissuade, and even litigate against those seeking to unlawfully profit from the Harvard name.
These lawyers find themselves quite busy. There are seemingly no creative limits to the products and services to which people are willing to attach the name “Harvard.” In 2008, a Chinese company invented a fictitious Harvard President named “Bell Johnson” to advertise water heaters. According to Crimson reporting from 1992, the University once even rejected an attempt to create a Harvard-themed condom, fearing repercussions if it was defective.
For the University, trademark infringement lawsuits are less about money and more about reputation. Harvard rarely seeks damages; its motivation is protecting the brand, not extracting money from usually small-time businesses and entrepreneurs.
While the Harvard name has been for years one of the most recognizable in higher education, the University’s effort to aggressively protect its trademark is relatively recent. In 2000, Harvard launched a suit against a life science research company called Harvard Bioscience, which had recently rebranded itself from Harvard Apparatus. Founded by a Harvard professor, the company had been using the name “Harvard” for nearly 100 years.
It wasn’t until 2000, though, that the University mounted a legal case. According to a New York Times article on the case, Harvard argued that “the new name sound[ed] too confusingly like the name of a college department.” The issue was resolved in 2003, when Harvard reached a licensing agreement with the firm and allowed it to continue using “Harvard” in its name.
Harvard Bioscience, though, was a special case. Around the turn of the century, Harvard adopted a no-nonsense stance towards unauthorized use of its trademark, and it has not relented since. In 1999, Harvard sued the Canadian company Harvard Negotiations International, which purported itself to be a Harvard affiliate. In 2000, Harvard sued the online education website NotHarvard.com, forcing a name change.
These cases are the rare few to come under the public eye, as most trademark infringers reach settlements with the University before ever even making the news. Licensing agreements, like the one afforded to Harvard Bioscience, are reserved only for the select companies which Harvard deems worthy of representing its brand.
The Harvard Trademark Program, the office tasked with protecting the University’s brand, states on its website that it “annually handles hundreds of cases involving the unauthorized use of the Harvard name and other University trademarks.”
In the future, as the Harvard brand extends its reach across the globe, this number seems likely to grow. In an increasingly globalized and brand-centric world, maintaining the integrity of the Harvard name has become core to the University’s strategy. So next time you’re in the market for a new pair of Harvard-themed jeans, you’ll have to buy them from one of the University’s officially-licensed retailers.