John Wayne heirs Duke it out with university

A Kentucky bourbon whiskey is among the products branded with actor John Wayne's nickname and image.

John Wayne’s heirs and a certain North Carolina university known for its basketball success are locked in a legal shootout over their right to the word Duke.

John Wayne Enterprises, a Newport Beach-based corporation that brands products with the legendary actor’s nickname — including Kentucky straight bourbon — alleges in a complaint filed in Orange County federal court that the university has been trying for years to block its rightful use of the moniker.

On at least three occasions since 2005, Duke University has opposed attempts by John Wayne Enterprises to trademark the name, court documents say.

Most recently, the university filed a notice of opposition to the company’s attempt to trademark an emblem that appears on a Duke-branded bottle of small batch Kentucky straight bourbon — an image that also encompasses a stylized picture of Wayne himself, hat, gun and all.


The university also opposed John Wayne Enterprise’s trademark of the word Duke, written in a blocky serif font, the complaint says.

Now, Wayne’s heirs say, enough is enough.

To remove a “cloud” of an eventual trademark infringement claim, the company is seeking a judge’s official declaration that the dueling Dukes can coexist without diluting either of their brands.

John Wayne’s childhood dog named Duke inspired the nickname that would stick with him throughout his long career, the document says. In Newport Beach, where Wayne lived and partied for years, a waterfront hangout at the Balboa Bay Club was called Duke’s Place, in the actor’s honor.


Duke University, the complaint says, “does not own the word ‘Duke’ in all contexts for all purposes.”

Furthermore, it adds, Duke has never “been in the business” of marketing alcohol. Therefore, bottles of the hard stuff bearing the word Duke are unlikely to be mistaken for school-sanctioned party fuel.

But university spokesman Michael Schoenfeld wrote in an email that “the university doesn’t object to the use of ‘Duke’ on alcoholic beverages, as long as it is clearly linked to John Wayne’s likeness.”

However, he wrote, Wayne’s estate wants the rights to use the word with or without the star’s image attached.


“While we admire and respect John Wayne’s contributions to American culture, we are also committed to protecting the integrity of Duke University’s trademarks,” Schoenfeld wrote in a statement.

“As Mr. Wayne himself said,” the statement continues, “ ‘Words are what men live by ... words they say and mean.’ ”

Richard Howell, John Wayne Enterprises’ attorney, disputed Schoenfeld’s assessment.

Howell said that the company has proposed “over and over” a truce of sorts: A co-use agreement wherein the company will only use the name ‘Duke’ in connection with John Wayne’s name, image or likeness.


In any case, Howell said, “I think an argument could be made that on a worldwide basis people are more likely to connect the moniker, ‘Duke,’ to John Wayne than they are to Duke University.”

No court date has been set.

Twitter: @JillCowan