UT’s trademark rules need adjusting

Rachel Huynh

The glowing Tower; burnt orange; the signature longhorn outline. These are all marks that will always be inextricably tied to the 40 Acres. They are more than just images — they serve as symbols of the traditions that come with being a part of our University. Why is it, then, that trademark rights for these signature symbols are so difficult for student organizations to gain access to?

Merchandise with these symbols seems to only come from official University offices, such as UT Athletics. This is because the Office of Trademark Licensing currently has very stringent restrictions in place dictating which groups can use these trademarked symbols.

“Only student organizations officially sponsored by a University office can access the University’s brand marks, which means that many of our student organizations have not been able to represent their spirit at University-approved events using UT-Austin marks and colors,” said Kathleen Mabley, director of brand marketing and creative services. This means that a huge number of hardworking student organizations have not been eligible to even request use of official marks and colors.

Why don’t student organizations just apply for official University sponsorship, then? First, there’s bureaucracy involved — you have to apply through the Office of the Dean of Students and get approved by the vice president before applying for trademark use with the Office of Trademark Licensing. Second, being sponsored means the organization’s purposes and activities must align with an academic or administrative unit, and a sponsor has to endorse, support, supervise and assume an oversight role for all aspects of the organization. Many organizations dedicated to the extracurricular enrichment of students don’t necessarily have a purpose that is directly affiliated with the school, and there are only so many hours of a professor or administrator’s day that can go towards serving as an advisor. It would be impossible to sponsor even half of the registered student organizations on campus. 

While restricting use of University trademarks is understandable, prohibiting nearly all — save less than 10 percent of student organizations — from even applying for use of the official marks and colors is unreasonable. Perhaps this policy was bureaucratic oversight from years past, but the message it sends is clear: The University doesn’t think general student organizations can adequately represent the UT brand. To assume that none of the non-sponsored student organizations on campus are capable of representing the University’s marks and colors in a respectable manner unreasonably expects very little of the majority of students. 

This is not a new issue. Student Government has been working closely with Mabley and Dean of Students Soncia Reagins-Lilly on these rigid trademark limitations for several years now. “After several meetings with UT Athletic Director Chris Plonsky over two years, we were able to come to an agreement that access should be granted through negotiated terms that Ms. Mabley and Dean Lilly championed,” said Nash Horne, former Student Government associate director and current student regent.

These new terms should be finalized within the coming months, according to Mabley. “The University believes that it is important to make the marks accessible to campus — but in a way that protects the brand value of the marks,” Mabley said. “When complete, the recent policy changes will clarify how registered student organizations — with the exception of political and religious student organizations — may apply for use of UT-Austin logos and trademarks.” Aside from extending the application for trademark use to all registered student organizations, the Office of Trademark Licensing also has plans to launch a new brand guidelines website to communicate the changes more clearly.

“There is a great deal of pride in being affiliated with the University of Texas, particularly for our student organizations,” Mabley said. “At the same time, a strong brand needs to be protected and managed.” Though the updated application for trademark use has not yet been released, the fact that Dean Lilly, Mabley and Plonsky have worked extensively with Student Government over two years to resolve this issue speaks volumes about this school.

“This conversation of policy change was something students for 20-some years dreamed of seeing, and it is through the leadership of these incredible women that we are here today,” Horne said. 

Where we are, however, is still only the brink of change. Though the involved offices seem confident that change is coming within this school year, the only thing that’s certain is that they must be held accountable to their promises. Only then will there be equal opportunity for trademark rights for all student organizations.

Huynh is a Plan II and business honors sophomore from Laredo.