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Houston Cougars Threatened With Trademark Suit by NFL

About two months ago, the University of Houston football team unveiled a new alternate uniform clearly modeled after the Houston Oilers’ famous “Love Ya Blue” design. The Cougars’ new alternate uni made its on-field debut for the team’s 2023 season opener a few days after the unveiling.

It may not be worn again, however, because The Houston Chronicle is reporting that the NFL has hit the university with a C&D — that’s a cease-and-desist letter — because the Cougars’ design infringes on the Oilers’ trademarked look. The NFL’s letter says the school wore the uniform “in a manner that is likely to cause consumers to believe that the Houston Cougars are associated with, or are an authorized licensee of, the NFL and the Titans.” The potential for consumer confusion is at the heart of most trademark cases.

According to the Chronicle article, the university has not produced or sold any merchandise related to the Oilers-style uniforms because the school’s licensing department declined to approve any such items. So the C&D is strictly about the uniforms being used on the field.

By coincidence (or maybe not), the Tennessee Titans, who own the Oilers’ intellectual property, wore Oilers throwbacks just yesterday.

The irony, of course, is that this uniform so closely associated with Houston can be worn by a team in Tennessee but not — in the NFL’s opinion — by a school in Houston.

Rice has also worn “Love Ya Blue”-inspired alternates this season, but they are apparently not facing the same legal scrutiny from the NFL. Per this article:

Rice also used the ‘Luv Ya Blue’ color scheme in 2023 but they don’t appear to be included under the same trademark infraction, at least according to the NFL. One source tells me it could be for two reasons – one, the Owls put “Rice” on the front of the jerseys and two, the Oilers played at Rice Stadium as an AFL franchise from 1965 through 1967.

There are other college football uniforms based on NFL designs. The University of Iowa, for example, wears Steelers-inspired uniforms. And in 2017, Arkansas wore a Cowboys-themed uni as a salute to Jerry Jones (although that one was rendered in Arkansas colors, not Cowboys colors, so there’d be no room for consumer confusion).

The Cougars have not yet issued a statement about the C&D.

Update: My friend and former ESPN colleague Dave Wilson has a good roundup of the situation.


Comments (40)

    Kinda petty…but I’m good with it.
    This shot-across-the-bow should keep the Texans from trying something similar?

    No, as the Texans would just pay a lot of money to obtain the right to wear and sell this uniform. The Cougars, it is different. They try to tease a NFL team and see what happens.

    No Fun League. They do not sell merch, they only wear it on the field and which consumer will confuse a Cougars game with a pro game? Not a conspiracy guy but it seems someone in Tennesse is trying to get back at the town the Oilers left behind when they became the Titans.

    I agree. Let’s play out the concerns… A fan sees this uni on TV, then tries to buy it. The only option available would be the Titans’ throwbacks, which means more money for the NFL.

    Obviously I’ve oversimplified it, but is there something big I’m missing?

    So if UH had put Cougars on the front instead of Houston they would have possibly escaped this C & D?

    In the mid-90s, Indiana University got away with wearing an exact copy of the 49ers uniform. Just substitute black for the parts that were gold.

    I can’t access the Houston Chronicle article now, but didn’t it say Houston went to the NFL or the Titans & asked to use the uniform & they said “no” – then they used it anyway?

    Aha! That would change the situation. If the owner of the rights says no beforehand…but still. Hard to shake off the feeling that the Yitans, as a big company, did not like the student prank jab by UH.

    Kansas State football uses the same template as the Dallas Cowboys road uniforms. Except for blue, it’s purple. Not a peep from the NFL.

    You can easily see the Cowboys inspiration in the Kansas State uniforms. However, the purple and silver/grey of the Wildcats would never be mistaken for the Cowboys. It’s about more than the template, which is fairly ordinary. It’s the color scheme and the template that’s at issue with the Houston Cougars’ Luv Ya Blue inspired uniforms.

    It just goes to show the pettiness of the Adams family.No one in Texas is confused.We are keenly aware the Oilers moved and they put all the Oiler stuff on the shelf. I think most people are aware enough to realize they were watching the Cougars.

    I wonder if this would have any merit had the Titans not gone with the throwbacks this year. Let’s say the NFL doesn’t lift the one shell rule and the Titans cannot wear this uniform due to their navy helmet. It may be a historical design for the Titans, but not one they wear.
    Is there still some merit or hold they get to keep on a design forever once they stop wearing?
    If Cincinnati went with black jerseys, white pants, with simple black/red/white stripes, and a red helmet with arching Bearcats, would that be violating the Bengals throwback?
    Did Memphis cut a deal with the Bengals to get to use that helmet design?

    The Houston Chronicle article mentioned Rice not hearing from the NFL over its Houston Oilers inspired uniforms worn in the Owls’ game against East Carolina on September 30, 2023.

    Below is a link to footage from that game. The Rice uniforms do not resemble any uniforms the Oilers wore as closely as the University of Houston uniforms from this past Saturday.


    The uniform somewhat resembles the Oilers’ 1966-71 uniform with silver helmet and pants. But the jersey name and dark blue trim are distinct.

    “By coincidence (or maybe not), the Tennessee Titans, who own the Oilers’ intellectual property, wore Oilers throwbacks just yesterday.”

    I was thinking the same thing. I assume that the team still sells OIlers stuff, enough to ensure that the Oilers trademarks aren’t considered abandoned – so they legally need to wear it in a game. But it can’t hurt, right?

    I read somewhere that the NHL still sells a bit of Chiefs, Rockies, Seals, Barons merch just to ensure the trademarks don’t lapse.

    Honestly…call their bluff. Tell the NFL they’ll see ’em in court. There are enough examples across college football (even beyond Iowa) where Houston could reasonably make a case that they are being unnecessarily singled out on this because the Titans and Houston-area fans are at odds with one another, which has no legal bearing on whether or not the university could come up with an homage-style uniform. The Oilers’ uniform is not trademarked. Their logo is, and Houston didn’t use their logo. If they ended up in a lawsuit, I’m willing to bet they’d end up having the suit dropped before it even gets to the courtroom.

    Agreed….its a college against a colossus….
    NFL calling its own consumers stupid, too stupid to tell a difference, eh?
    That’s not exactly a sound legal argument.

    So up until a few years ago I guess USC could have put a cease-and-desist on Iowa State for copying their uniform.

    Nope. USC would have lost. First of all, there were a number of significant differences between the uniforms, including the shoulder striping, the helmet logos, and the large wordmark that Iowa State used across the chest. Even the shades of red are slightly different.

    But that’s just talking about the appearance of the uniforms, which were not that hard to distinguish even if some Trojans fans apparently still get their knickers in a twist about uniforms that Iowa State wore for less than ten years of their existence and haven’t worn in more than six years. USC would have lost (if they’d been foolish enough to file a trademark infringement case) because they have not registered for trademark or trade dress protection with the USPTO on their football uniforms. Their helmet logo? Their “USC” wordmark? If some school poached those, they’d have a case. But somewhat similar uniforms? No chance.

    Moreover, I’m not commenting on the merits of the Titans’ claims against the University of Houston, but the scenarios you suggest are in no way similar. UH intentionally wore a uniform to remind fans in the city of an NFL team that used to play there. There was no mistaking their intent. Iowa State just wore uniforms in the school colors they’d been using for decades, with no marks on the uniforms or in their promotion of their uniforms to make people think they were trying to remind fans in Iowa of some team they all had a long-lost connection to. So no, this is not an apt analogy.

    Relax, I was kidding.
    But actually you’re wrong on the color. They both are cardinal red. Iowa St even uses a cardinal as a mascot, even though they’re the Cyclones.

    The shades of red ARE different. Yes, both schools refer to their shades of red as “cardinal,” but USC uses a shade known as Pantone 201: link. Iowa State uses Pantone 202C: link. It’s not hard to notice the difference when you compare them side-by-side.

    Please, any legal eagle out there, doesn’t the NFL have to show damages to the court?
    Don’t think they can do that….

    If this dispute were to result in a lawsuit, then yes, the NFL and/or the Titans, as the plaintiffs, would have to prove damages in order to prevail. But at this stage of the dispute, when they’ve simply sent a cease-and-desist letter, they do not have to show their proof of damages to anyone just yet.

    I don’t know what kind of evidence they would use to prove damages, but it would likely involve using economists or other specialists in the field of trademarks to show that the value of the Titans’ trademarks have been diminished by UH’s use of a uniform (and possible sale of merchandise) that is visually similar to those trademarks.

    Say what you want, I literally thought this was a picture from yesterday’s Titans game. So I mean, its a fair point from the NFL side that you could think this was an NFL item. And I guarantee if these jerseys were for sale, some grandma would buy it for their grandkids thinking it was an Oilers jersey.

    Not a trademark attorney primarily, but did register and maintain some TMs for a couple clients through the years, and know that if you don’t use/exploit the TM in the stream of commerce for 5-6 years, you can lose it.

    Google says the Titans haven’t worn the Oilers uniforms since 2009, does anyone know if the Titans have been selling other forms of Oilers merchandise before this year? Obviously, I have to think the Titans’ and NFL’s high priced lawyers dealt with all of this over the years, but you never know, a lot of nepotism and fail sons/daughters throughout the league…

    The Titans have sold Oilers throwback jerseys via Fanatics for the last decade at least, made by various apparel companies with Nike, Mitchell & Ness, and Pro Line coming to mind.

    Shows what the NFL thinks of the intellectual capacity of the average college and pro football fan. It’s hard to conceive a scenario where someone would see the Cougs unis and somehow be led to believe that the Oilers are back in business.
    I would imagine if anything people would see those and be prompted to buy Oilers merchandise.
    Also, how many people outside of Houston are that eager to tune into Houston Cougar football from week to week?

    If the legal system could be trusted at coming anywhere near justice, I’m sure the college would be seriously considering to tell the NFL where to stick it and how far.

    No Oilers logo, reverse stripping colours on the helmet, completely different pants, and a Houston script above the numbers that isn’t in any way Oiler-esque.

    They think they exclusively own colours and a not uncommon striping pattern? What if a primarily red and blue team tried pulling the same crap on another team?

    …and clearly THE Ohio State University blatantly stole their uniform design from the iconic USFL Tampa Bay Bandits!!!!! Gawd, when will the NFL let up? Thanks NFL Owners and Art Modell for liberating my Sundays forever!

    I didn’t know the Adams family could so effectively channel Al Davis.

    This isn’t the first school to channel the color scheme. The striping is not that similar, and not once did UH try to use the Oilers’ logo.

    Pretty much personifies “petty.” Probably did more to help the Oilers than hurt them. Yet …

    Actually, the striping pretty much replicates the style used by the Oilers from 1972 to 1989.

    So glad the NFL and Amy Strunk are here to save me from my stupidity…Cause when I turned on that Cougars-Roadrunners game last month, I immediately thought:
    a. Wow, the NFL season started a week early and they didn’t announce it? COOL!
    2. I can’t believe it! THE OILERS ARE BACK!!! Great new logo, too! “U-H!” “…OK!”
    c. Hey, the Ravens must have switched up their uni colors…Oh well……
    4. Neato, they’re playing in some college stadium. Nostalgic.
    e. ….And a Saturday game to kick off the season, those NFL rascals…..
    6. Usually Phil and Paul are on top of these things… naw, they probably just wanted it allll to be a surprise….those rascals….

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