UM asks students to rename Web site

TerpIdiots infringes on brand, officials say

November 28, 2001|By Alec MacGillis | Alec MacGillis,SUN STAFF

COLLEGE PARK -- What is a Terp? According to the University of Maryland administration, it's more than just a turtle or a Maryland athlete -- it's a brand name.

In another attempt to burnish the school's reputation, university administrators are pressuring a popular student Web site, TerpIdiots.com, to drop its name, saying its use is a trademark infringement. At a meeting yesterday, administrators persuaded the Web site's student owners to adopt a new domain name and thereby avoid being sued by the university, which owns a trademark on the word "terps."

"We regard `terps' as part of our brand. It is a trademark, just like Pepsi-Cola or Burger King," said university spokesman George Cathcart. "Part of the purpose of trademarks is to allow organizations to control the values associated with their brand, and that's what we're doing here."

TerpIdiots made its debut last year as a campus-wide discussion site featuring forums on everything from fraternity reforms to dating tips and academic ethics. It now receives several thousand visits a day, and even administrators admit to checking it occasionally to gauge the campus climate.

But on Nov. 15, university counsel Anne Bowden sent a letter to the Web site's owners, Mike Kunz and Tony Zuccaro, alleging they were illegally using the Terp trademark -- as well as the university logo of a globe covered with the Maryland flag. She told them to "immediately cease and desist all such infringing actions."

Investment in the name

"Over the years, the University has invested substantial resources in these marks and names ... They are associated with and represent tremendous goodwill locally, nationally and internationally," the school lawyer wrote. "If you do not comply with this directive, the University will take appropriate action."

The warning set off a flurry of protest on the Web site, where the site owners told visitors to "keep supporting and visiting our site, and wait for further word! Keep faith, fellow t*** idiots!" Dozens of students wrote in urging the owners to resist the administration.

But at a meeting yesterday, the owners agreed to come up with a different domain name by tomorrow .

`In the hot seat'

"We don't want to go to court over it," said Zuccaro, a senior computer science major from Olney. "We're students and have limited funds. It's easy for our fans to say, `fight it,' but we're the ones in the hot seat." Kunz is a senior criminology and environmental science major from Cockeysville.

Zuccaro said Web site visitors would be asked to help pick a new name. The university has offered to help structure the site so that visitors to the old name will be directed to the new one, Cathcart said.

"It was never our intention to shut it down, but just to control our brand," he said. "The reason you brand things is so you can create positive associations with them. Our contention is the word `terp' is associated with the best of the university."

The dispute comes as the university is striving to capitalize on its growing national reputation. Earlier this month, it launched a $650,000 advertising campaign, nicknamed "Zoom!" which includes prime-time television commercials, campus banners and an Internet site.

Student reaction

In the campus newspaper, The Diamondback, and on the TerpIdiots site, students this week argued that the move against the Web site took the university's image improvement a step too far.

With a new name, wrote student Dan Zytnick, the site "would lose the distinctive identity its name brings, the same reason the University of Maryland wouldn't suddenly change its name to the University of Overbearing Trademark Lawyers."

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