Arik Hesseldahl

Recent Posts by Arik Hesseldahl

Cisco Sued for Trademark Infringement Over Marketing Slogan

Late last year, networking giant Cisco Systems had big plans. Having suffered through a gut-wrenching round of layoffs and restructuring moves meant to get the company back in fighting trim after a few years of bloat, 2013 was to be a year of new beginnings.

One big piece of that was a marketing and branding campaign launched at the end of 2012 at Cisco’s annual meeting with financial analysts in New York. Crossing the Web, TV, print and augmented reality, it featured the slogan “Tomorrow Starts Here.” Its intent has been to inject the importance of networking rather than computing as the most important aspect in the narrative of the Internet’s next phase of growth.

It turns out that Cisco is not the first to use that slogan, and the one that got to it first is steaming mad. North Carolina’s second-largest college, East Carolina University, based in Greenville, N.C., announced today that it has sued Cisco in federal court — it didn’t specify which court — for trademark infringement.

“ECU has used the mark ‘Tomorrow Starts Here’ for over a decade, including in national advertisements and publications such as Forbes and Wired,” the university’s chancellor, Steve Ballard, said in a statement. “We feel it is essential to take action to protect that defining trademark of our identity and vision.”

I’m not a lawyer, but from what I understand of trademark law, one of its cornerstone principles is that if you’re going to register a trademark, you have to be willing to defend it when someone uses it without your authorization, or you essentially give them permission to keep using it. So these cases are pretty routine.

But to prove infringement, you also have to prove that the use of the trademark is likely to cause consumer confusion. ECU makes a stab at a case in its press release announcing the suit:

ECU’s trademark “Tomorrow Starts Here” is a university-wide brand that represents an overlapping field of goods and services when compared with that of Cisco. For example, research initiatives through ECU’s College of Technology and Computer Science have created products and intellectual property that are actively being commercialized. ECU is also a leader in the field of distance education technology that is heavily promoted through ECU’s global online education program using the mark “Tomorrow Starts Here.”

A university supporting technology research and a networking giant selling routers, switches and cloud computing gear? Does that confuse you? My guess is that Cisco and ECU will in time come to a settlement. Cisco is flush with cash, something universities always need.

Here are two example videos, first Cisco’s, and then a sample from ECU. You be the judge. Are you confused?

Update: I initially called the college Eastern Carolina University. Sorry about that.

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— Om Malik on Bloomberg TV, talking about Yahoo, the September issue of Vogue Magazine, and our overdependence on Google