John Wayne’s family and Duke University duke it out over whiskey name

ablythe@newsobserver.comJuly 9, 2014 


Plenty of John Wayne movie lines could be used in the real-life drama playing out between the iconic actor’s heirs and Duke University.

As part of a long-running legal tussle, the Durham university and John Wayne Enterprises have been fighting over “Duke” trademarks and whether the family of the star of countless classic westerns can brand their bourbon with the name they want.

The Wayne family filed a lawsuit in a California federal court last week asking a judge to push back the university, which has been bedeviling their plans for restaurants, gaming machines, celebrity licensing services and now an attempt to register a “Duke” trademark for alcoholic beverages.

You can almost hear Wayne’s low, slow, gravelly voice in “The Horse Soldiers,” the 1959 movie directed by John Ford.

“You tangle with me, I’ll have your hide,” Wayne told William Holden.

The scene has become one of the many classics associated with the Oscar-winning actor who became a symbol for simple virtues and indomitable virility.

John Wayne, born Marion Robert Morrison, was universally known as “the Duke,” or “Duke,” a nickname he picked up as a small boy.

His family contends that Duke University had made “ludicrous” claims that people might confuse products bearing Wayne’s image and signature, such as a bottle of bourbon they hope to market, as products affiliated with the school.

“Duke is a common word that has been in use for centuries in a wide array of commercial and other applications wholly independent of Duke,” the lawsuit states. “Yet by the action alleged … Duke University seems to think it owns the word ‘Duke’ for all purposes and applications.”

Duke University, which started out as Trinity College in 1838, became Duke 86 years later, after tobacco heir James B. Duke established a huge endowment for the private school.

Since then, Duke has mounted many legal challenges to protect its trademark, issuing cease and desist letters, opposing trademark applications and creating a consistent record for potential litigation.

In their statement of opposition to the Trademark Office, Duke stated that “in order to prevent tarnishment of its brand, [Duke University] does not permit use of confusingly similar marks associated with unapproved goods or services, of uncertain quality and/or unregulated by [Duke University].”

Duke University further stated that the Wayne family’s plans threatened the university’s hold on a variety of food products and beverages.

The Wayne family contended that the two Dukes had vastly different customer bases.

“Duke University is not and never has been associated with John Wayne,” the family’s lawsuit contends. “Duke University is not and never has been in the business of producing, marketing, distributing or selling alcohol.”

Duke University lawyers have until later this month to file an initial response to the lawsuit.

Michael Schoenfeld, the university’s spokesman, issued a statement Wednesday.

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

Blythe: 919-836-4948; Twitter: @AnneBlythe1

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