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Who is the rightful heir to the “Duke legacy” — a major private university or the descendants of a movie star who want to put his name on bottles of whiskey?
Specifically, the heirs to Marion Robert Morrison, aka John Wayne, have filed suit against Duke University, seeking to claim a trademark to use the “Duke” namesake in liquor sales.
The Hollywood Reporter first reported on the lawsuit, noting that the university and the Wayne family have been in a number of disputes over the past decade contesting the use of the "Duke" moniker on everything from gaming machines to restaurant services.
For its part, Duke University argues that using the “Duke” nickname for different commercial purposes would only confuse the public. “Consistent with its policies and 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]," the university argued in a response to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
In the complaint, members of the Wayne family argue that since Duke University does not actually make alcoholic beverages, the Wayne family should be able to use the “Duke” name in conjunction with bourbon sales. Wayne’s image has become a popular marketing brand for the family, appearing on an assortment of items — even bags of charcoal.
“Duke University does not own the word 'Duke' in all contexts and purposes,” the complaint reads in part. "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 University. Yet by the actions alleged herein, Duke University seems to think it owns the word 'Duke' for all purposes and applications."
Wayne’s son, Ethan Wayne, currently serves as president of John Wayne Enterprises, based in Newport Beach, Calif. In addition to managing the family’s commercial endeavors, Ethan Wayne also heads up the John Wayne Cancer Foundation.
Of course, John Wayne fans might have to laugh at all the drama. After all, the “Duke” nickname wasn’t originally given to Wayne to signify his grandiose stature. It was the name of his childhood dog, but Wayne liked it so much that his neighbors simply transferred it to him, referring to Wayne as “Big Duke” and his dog as “Little Duke.”
“Hell, the truth is that I was named after a dog!” Wayne once famously said.
Follow Eric Pfeiffer on Twitter (@ericpfeiffer)