John Wayne family loses Round 1 to Duke University in trademark fight

John Wayne family loses Round 1 in trademark fight with Duke University

In the movies, John Wayne rarely lost a fight.

But in federal district court in Santa Ana, where the late actor’s legacy was put to a legal test, the late western hero known as Duke didn’t fare quite as well.

A judge this week dismissed a lawsuit filed by John Wayne’s family to trademark the nickname, an effort that was opposed by a certain North Carolina university that shares the name Duke.

The suit had been filed by John Wayne Enterprises, a Newport Beach-based corporation that brands products — including bourbon and other alcoholic beverages — with the actor’s nickname. Duke University has consistently fought the family’s efforts.

In dismissing the suit, Judge David Carter cited a lack of jurisdiction and “improper venue.” The issue, he said, rests with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board in Alexandria, Va., not his courtroom.

“We are pleased that the court has dismissed the lawsuit, and we look forward to resolving this issue through the normal trademark process,” said Michael Schoenfeld, Duke University spokesman.

The family-owned company contends that Duke University is not in the business of selling alcohol and doesn’t “own the word ‘Duke’ in all contexts for all purposes,” according to the complaint filed in July.

Family, friends and fans have known John Wayne, born Marion Robert Morrison, as Duke Morrison, Duke Wayne, Duke and The Duke — a nickname that derived from his boyhood dog named Duke — the complaint alleged.

The company, which serves “to preserve and protect the name, image and likeness of John Wayne,” filed trademark applications for “Duke” and “Duke John Wayne” in 2013 for use on alcoholic beverages, excluding beers, according to the court document.

The university argued that allowing the name to be trademarked could cause confusion and be deceptive.

But the notion that the business venture's logo could be mistaken for a Duke University product is “preposterous,” John Wayne’s son Ethan Wayne said.

An image provided in the complaint shows a label on a bottle of bourbon stamped with a silhouette of the movie star in a cowboy hat, clutching a gun. The name “DUKE” is stamped over his thighs, and John Wayne’s signature is reproduced near his feet.

“We are selling things to people who like John Wayne,” Wayne said. “If it was not John Wayne, if it was ambiguous, our business wouldn’t survive.”

He added, “All we lost was the jurisdictional dispute. We didn’t lose the argument.”

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