Legality of sort-of-parody merchandise

I write indie urban fantasy books, in which my main character is a professor in a fictional department (Occult Studies) at a real university (Stanford). I would like to make some swag merchandise to sell, or even just give away, as part of my marketing effort for my series. Specifically, I’d like to pay an artist to design me a department crest for the Occult Studies department.

At first, I thought I couldn’t do this because I’m sure Stanford has very good lawyers and protects their copyrights vigorously. However, I’ve just been poking around the net and discovered several parody Stanford T-shirts for sale (“Straight Outta Stanford” and “Keep Calm and Go to Stanford” being a couple).

That got me thinking: Stanford is a city as well as a university (it’s got its own zip code). Could I get away with making merchandise with a fake department crest on it, along with “Stanford Department of Occult Studies,” with no mention of “University” and without using any of Stanford’s trademarked symbols (like the tree and the block “S”?)

Any legal-minded folks out there who might know? I’m not asking for legal advice, just thoughts and maybe anecdotes about others who’ve done similar things.


Parody is a defense against copyright but not against trademark. You should be looking up the differences between the two. For example, its trademarks that must be vigorously defended, not copyrights.

Your plan to avoid using any trademarked symbols is the best one. Avoid using the exact typeface as well.

This is not legal advice, but basic common sense.

If the Collective Wisdom of the Dope says it’s OK to proceed with your plans, but (for some reason) Stanford disagrees, are you prepared to pay an IP law firm $400 an hour to defend the Collective Wisdom?

Since this involves legal advice, let’s move it to IMHO.

General Questions Moderator

Look Here

Yeah, it’s not looking good. :frowning: I thought I could get away with just using “Stanford,” but it looks like they’ve even got that trademarked.

Reading this makes me even wonder if I should be using the university in my books at all–but at this point that ship has sailed, and unless they decide to come after me and tell me to change it, I’m gonna leave it alone. I don’t say anything to cast the place in a negative light, and so far all the mentions in the books have been positive to neutral. I do have a disclaimer in the front that says all names are either fictitious or are used fictitiously.

Why not choose a defunct university and pretend that, in your universe, it survived somehow? Perhaps you could make your department part of the University of Albuquerque, which doesn’t exist anymore and presumably isn’t subject to any trademark claims.

You can freely use the name of the University in your book; free speech trumps trademark law.

If you use the trademark incorrectly – which usually means using it as a generic term – you may get a letter from the Stanford lawyers, but it won’t go further than that (Remember, John Varley was able to use disneyland as a common noun and even the ever-litigious mouse did nothing to stop him). And portraying Stamford in a negative light in a work of fiction is not a trademark issue.

I’d shoot an email to the folks at the OTW - their focus is more on fanworks than on original content, but they should be able to give you advice on it.

I think it would be fine, as RealityChuck states above - but the OTW would know for sure.

Little late for that: the series already has four books out with Stanford in them.

Honestly unless your indie series really starts taking off I doubt that Stanford would even notice. Or if they did that they would decide it was worth the cost of bringing out their legal team. Worst case scenario you just go ahead and cease and desist.

Yeah, that’s true. So far I’ve sold a few thousand ebooks–not really enough to mobilize the Stanford machine, most likely.

Still a bummer I can’t do the swag items, though. I’d really like to have an Occult Studies Department T-shirt, and maybe make school notebooks and whatnot. Ah, well.

Can you change the name to Fred G. Sanford University?

This is the big one, Elizabeth!

How about just using S.U.?

That’s a possibility. I’m not crazy about it, honestly, but it would probably keep me out of trouble and still let me do my swag.

I think Stanford may stomp on your proposed use harder than others because some idiot parent or evangelical will really think they have an occult studies department and go batshit insane. Were I Stanford I would direct my legal team to take you out at the knees if you did this.

Your intended use seems to be broadly protected by the fair use doctrine.

But if you use the precise trademarks

and their legal eagles can make the case that your use causes “confusion” (ie the crazy parent scenario) this will not stand

Having said this here’s more info
7 Legal Tips for Your T-Shirt Business

That’s not true. If Stanford doesn’t defend their trademark from trivial infringement it vitiates their defense in the event of a meanigful one. That’s why you have the Children’s Television Workshop going after nursery schools for using their characters.