TWINSBURG — A Northeast Ohio school district's bid to put its tiger mascot on license plates took an unexpected detour through the Motor City.
Major League Baseball's Detroit Tigers questioned Twinsburg City Schools' application for copyright of a blue-gray depiction of a tiger's face, suggesting people could confuse the logo with the professional team's orange, white and blue trademark.
The debate arose after Ohio lawmakers approved Twinsburg's request in 2017 to create special fundraising plates bearing the design. As part of the process, the district applied in the summer of 2019 for a U.S. trademark on its tiger logo, a concept that it had purchased from a student for $1,000. A short time later, the big-league team contacted "little Twinsburg City Schools" with its concerns, Superintendent Kathryn Powers said.
"We had no idea what was going to happen next," Powers said. The suburban district — about 20 miles from both Akron and Cleveland — has about 4,200 students and 500 employees. The district sought to make the specially branded plates available as a way to raise money for its Positive Behavioral Interventions & Supports program. But the plan sat at a roadblock while Twinsburg and the ballclub worked toward an agreement to assure Detroit "that there was no confusion in the marketplace" between the logos, Powers said.
Among several differences in the two designs, Twinsburg's tiger has a closed mouth, fuller snout and delivers a calm, piercing stare — while Detroit's appears on the verge of a roar, baring sharp teeth and taut, protruding whiskers. The baseball team also had concerns about use of other tiger imagery in the district, such as its Paws on Child Hunger program; Paws is the nickname of Detroit's costumed mascot.
"Over the ensuing two years, we have worked with the Detroit Tigers organization to develop a plan that would allow the district and the baseball club to coexist both at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and in the marketplace," Powers said.
The school boarded voted 3-0 Wednesday to approve an agreement that will pave the way for the district's continued use of its selected tiger imagery. Powers said the agreement is a non-monetary understanding.
"We believe this settlement agreement accomplishes this goal and ensures that our district can carry on using its trademarks with its educational services, athletics, and charitable services," Powers said. "It's been a long time in coming."
David Hochman, senior manager, business communications for Major League Baseball, said the Detroit Tigers "have reached an amicable resolution with the school district.
"We view this as a routine trademark matter that will allow the school to continue using the name with clear understanding of parameters around how it can co-exist with MLB’s trademarks," Hochman said.
Familiar fight in world of sports
Thousands of high school and lower-level athletic programs share mascots in common with some of sports' most famous teams.
Twinsburg, for instance, is one of about 36 high schools statewide that uses a tiger as a mascot, according to an Ohio High School Athletic Association count. That makes it the most widely used high school mascot in Ohio.
But in a country flooded with lions, tigers, bears, bulldogs, knights, feisty leprechauns and more, these programs face hurdles trying to trademark their own concepts as unique.
Branded sports merchandise is huge business in the United States; industry estimates vary, but total spending generally falls in the tens of billions of dollars annually. In addition to guarding against unlicensed merchandise cutting into their profits. professional and college programs pounce on attempts to trademark images that closely resemble their brands. High schools also depend on sales of branded merchandise as a revenue source and to fulfill fan demand for team gear — so an attempt like Twinsburg's to copyright a logo can turn into a cumbersome process against a sports Goliath.
"The [Detroit] Tigers were concerned about our Tiger logo and wanted to be certain between the [school district] trademarks and [he Detroit Tigers trademarks," Powers said.
How Ohio's specialty plates process works
Securing approval for a nonprofit specialty plate in Ohio starts with submitting a petition signed by 150 people who intend to purchase the plate to the state's Bureau of Motor Vehicles. That must be followed by passage of a bill sponsored by an Ohio state legislator. More than 150 organizations currently have logo plates, including Massillon Tigers and Canton Bulldogs plates.
Twinsburg's successful effort was sponsored by current state Sen. Kristina Roegner, R-Hudson. in December 2019, when she was serving in the Ohio House of Representatives.
Lindsey Bohrer, assistant director of communications for the Ohio Department of Public Safety, said the BMV "continues to work with Twinsburg City Schools to get their logo license plate implemented" — but it won't be available until sometime in 2022 at the earliest.
Once the plate becomes available, purchasers would pay an additional $40 beyond routine plate and registration fees — with $30 of that going to Twinsburg City Schools.
Roegner said she has sponsored specialty plate requests for other schools and entities such as the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, Stan Hywet Hall and Gardens and the Cuyahoga Valley Scenic Railroad.
"It helps them raise money, and helps develop a sense of community pride," Roegner said. She added that even though copyright disputes are commonplace, she was unfamiliar with any that held up the specialty plate process before Twinsburg's bid.
Powers said the process has been "quite the journey."
"Who would have thought that the Twinsburg schools would have been a topic of discussion in Detroit?" Powers said. "It's been quite a ride."
Reporter April Helms can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
This article originally appeared on Akron Beacon Journal: Twinsburg schools reach understanding with Detroit Tigers over mascot