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East Carolina University sues Cisco over use of slogan

According to East Carolina University, tomorrow can only start in one place.

The university is suing Cisco Systems Inc. — a global networking company — to settle a dispute over the school’s trademarked slogan, “Tomorrow starts here.”

ECU filed a lawsuit late last week against Cisco for unlawful use of the slogan, which adorns the top of the school’s website and other products.

Cisco has been using the slogan in an advertising campaign launched last month that includes 60-second television ads.

ECU claims Cisco’s use of the slogan violates trademark law and confuses consumers who associate it with the university.

“We feel it is essential to take action to protect that defining trademark of our identity and vision,” said ECU Chancellor Steve Ballard in a statement.

ECU uses the slogan to promote its College of Technology and Computer Science as well as its research, software development and licensing, according to the official complaint.

Kristin Carvell, spokeswoman for Cisco, said the company was surprised by the complaint.

“Cisco takes intellectual property rights very seriously, and we are confident that our new campaign does not create any confusion in the marketplace,” Carvell said in an email statement.

A university press release states that ECU started using the slogan more than a decade ago. Records from the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office show that ECU received the trademark in 2011.

Deborah Gerhardt, a law professor at UNC-CH who studies trademark law, said ECU needs to prove that Cisco’s use of the slogan will cause consumers to mistakenly buy Cisco instead of ECU products.

“We rely so much on brands in our economy,” Gerhardt said. “People will sue so that their symbol will have a distinct commercial impression.”

But if two companies belong to different industries and have unmistakable products, they can legally use the same slogan, she said.

“It’s really hard to know just from a lawyer looking at a dispute whether or not somebody can win,” she said.

Gerhardt added that ECU’s lawyers could find it difficult to prove that Cisco’s use of the slogan will confuse consumers.

But Rick Matthews, a lawyer representing ECU, said he expects the university to win the case.

ECU’s lawyers argue that Cisco and ECU products are part of the same computer technology industry, according to the official complaint.

Gerhardt said each trademark rights suit is different in terms of how long it takes to resolve the dispute, and the timeline depends on particular aspects of the case.

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