Mascot lawsuits drain Buzz Fund

By Scott Lange
Assistant News Editor
October 30, 1998

By Stanley Leary / TELEPHOTO

A cap featuring the logo of the Salt Lake Buzz compared to a cap with Georgia Tech's Buzz. Which is just a fake trying to squeeze into someone else's clothes? Only the court system knows for sure.

Attorneys representing the University System Board of Regents remain immersed in an ongoing battle with a minor league baseball team calling themselves the Buzz. Officials fear legal costs could top $250,000 before the case is settled.
The Salt Lake Buzz, the AAA affiliate of the Minnesota Twins, have appealed the dismissal of their suit in Utah against the Board of Regents. Meanwhile, the Board's counter-suit in Georgia is on hold while the judge decides whether his court has jurisdiction.
"It is extremely important for any university to protect its marks and although it is expensive in the short run, Buzz is a very valuable asset to Georgia Tech," Associate Vice President of Auxiliary Services Rosalind Meyers said. "It is a great symbol and we have to do whatever it takes to protect it."
Georgia Tech receives money each time one of the Institute's trademarked logos is licensed. After costs of administrating the licensing contracts are subtracted, the revenue is distributed to the Buzz Fund.
Buzz Fund money is normally split evenly between Auxiliary Services, the Athletic Association, and the Alumni Association. The three entities use the revenue to fund a number of scholarships, internships, and other student programs. However, all of this year's Buzz Fund money is being spent to fund the litigation with the Salt Lake City Buzz.
"There was no other source of funding for this," Meyers said. "We all met and discussed this and agreed that we were doing the right thing to use the money to protect our mark."
Jim Vaughn, a lawyer with twenty years of experience with intellectual property law, was retained by the State Attorney General to represent the Board of Regents. Vaughn is still hoping to find a negotiated settlement.
"They appealed the dismissal in Utah and so we are engaged in mandatory mediation of the claim," Georgia Tech Chief Legal Advisor Randy Nordin said. "There has been a lot of back and forth, but not a whole lot of movement on their part. There is at least a chance that we may be able to settle it."
According to Nordin, the longer the court proceedings drag on, the more Buzz Fund money will have to be spent on legal fees instead of scholarships.
"My impression is that it has cost significantly more than $100,000 to date and it is likely that it will cost as much as a quarter of a million if we have to litigate through a full law suit," Nordin explained.
With this year's Buzz Fund appropriations consumed by the courts, the three usual recipients of the money are having to make do. Some money was carried over from last year and officials expect that small amount to help a little.
"Last year [Auxiliary Services] used approximately $36,000 for student internships," Meyers said. "$25,000 went to leadership scholarships ranging from one to five thousand dollars each. We have a committee that spends a lot of time interviewing the students that apply for these and looking at every aspect of the students to decide who gets the award. It is really important and really valuable and it's a shame we can't do it this year."
"We also provide a certain amount of money for multicultural programs," Meyers said. "For many years, all the culture events that have been held downstairs in [the Student Services building] have been funded by Buzz Funds. We do have some money left over from last year. We didn't spend it all so we will have some money left to fund some of these smaller programs."
Meyers and Nordin agree that using Buzz Fund money was the best and probably the only feasible way of funding the legal proceedings.
"The money comes out of the Buzz Fund which comes from the licensing of the logos," Nordin explained. "That has been the case for as long as the Buzz Fund has existed. There are always legal expenses to protect our trademarks and the Buzz Fund has always been used to pay for them."
Despite the effort and expense already poured into the squabble, as well as the potential for the issue to take years to resolve, Tech's legal team is not ready to give up hope that a settlement with Buzas can be reached.
"It is really hard to tell [if the Salt Lake City Buzz] are acting in bad faith," Nordin said. "[Earlier in the proceedings] we could point to when they negotiated with us and then filed suit when we sent them the agreement and see bad faith. [Now] we don't seem to be moving on the negotiations the way I would like us to be, but nonetheless, I really can't point to anything and say 'that's bad faith.'"
"We have an offer on the table from them that we are getting ready to respond to," Nordin added. "If they take our response favorably we could wrap this up in a couple of weeks. If they don't, your guess is as good as mine. It could be several years."
The origins of the case date back to the early 1990's when team owner Joe Buzas moved his baseball franchise to Salt Lake City. At that time, Buzas renamed his team the Salt Lake City Buzz, because of the old Salt Lake City Bees, the similarity to Buzas' name, and the -zz ending common to several Utah professional sports franchises. Georgia Tech discovered the similarities when Salt Lake City merchandise was seen on sale in Atlanta.
"The folks that handle the licensing of our logos discovered that a year or so ago," Nordin said. "They contacted the team at that point in time and we thought they were going to work something out short of actually having to litigate. There were several months of negotiations whereupon a settlement agreement was drawn up and sent to the Salt Lake Buzz for signature. At that point in time instead of signing it they filed suit against the Board of Regents in Utah. [Attorneys representing the Board of Regents] filed an answer in Utah and also filed a complaint here in Georgia for infringement of our trademark."
Tech officials cite fear of setting a precedent of allowing unfair use of the name Buzz as a key reason for pursuing the litigation despite the high cost. According to Meyers, the expenditure of a year's worth of the Buzz Fund will ensure future student scholarship money for decades to come. We've seen all the, will the real Buzz please stand up?

Copyright © 1998 by Gregory S. Scherrer, Editor and by the Student Publications Board

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