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Fax a Lawsuit, Roll Tide

2006 November 14
by John Wallbillich

It’s college football week on The Wired GC. Let’s blow the whistle and kick things off.

First, a trip to the SEC. That’s this one, not that one.

Sometimes legal methods have to be reviewed as much as legal rights.

The New York Times featured a lead article over the weekend about the University of Alabama’s lawsuit against sport artist Daniel A. Moore. This picture, “The Sack,” depicts a famous hit on Notre Dame quarterback Steve Beuerlein by Alabama player Cornelius Bennett in 1986.

take that!

The university alleges that Mr. Moore’s paintings violate trademark rights, including the use of crimson and white (note: crimson is one thing, but when an artist can’t use white, hmmmm).

So far so good; a university needs to police and protect its marks.

But Alabama didn’t just talk about this with Mr. Moore, who has quite a following among ‘Bama faithful. In fact, Mr. Moore is an Alabama alum, painting football memories for decades. He has two daughters attending the university, and one who has graduated.

No, according to the Times they called a “Konica Flare on 3,” which is also known as serving lawsuit papers by fax. This always looks bad when recounted in the press. It helped earn this sort of response by one of ‘Bama’s own:

“This lawsuit is the equivalent of the Catholic Church suing Michelangelo for painting the Sistine Chapel,” said Keith Dunnavant, an Alabama alumnus and the author of “Coach: The Life of Paul ‘Bear’ Bryant.”

The Times notes that the university declined requests for interviews, supposedly on “advice of counsel.” Perhaps they should have consulted a certain emeritus faculty member first on how to review options before running with a lawsuit:

James Glen Stovall, who taught journalism at the university for 25 years, said only one sort of person would support the suit. “I can see why, if you’re sitting in a roomful of lawyers, you might come to that conclusion,” Mr. Stovall said. “But no one outside of that room would say: ‘Hey, that’s a good idea. Let’s sue Daniel Moore.’ ”

Ouch.

And in Professor Stovall’s remarks, there are at least three insights for GCs. The first is just because you can, doesn’t mean you should. The second is that methods matter, and are largely what the court of public opinion rules on. Finally, there’s the reality of the “no comment” in the Internet Age. If you want spokespeople to try that handoff to “the lawyers,” fine. Just don’t be surprised when your little lawsuit shows up on page one of a major newspaper, and on its website.

It’s the kind of PR a university just can’t buy.

And surely this lawsuit would find its way into the Alabama student newspaper and student life. (They can only write so many articles about dorm food and freeing Tibet). There has been a petition circulated on campus supporting Mr. Moore that has garnered over 2,000 signatures. (The student writer actually does a great job of digging into the story; showing it has shades of grey in addition to crimson and white).

Now if that grey was in paintings involving the Ohio State Buckeyes, all bets are off. (Does it go with scarlet or clarett?)

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