CORONAVIRUS

University of Iowa office says woman's Hawkeye masks on Etsy infringe trademark

The University of Iowa's Trademark Licensing Program is sending warnings to vendors offering Hawkeye-branded face masks
The University of Iowa’s Trademark Licensing Program is sending warnings to vendors offering Hawkeye-branded face masks for sale, like this offer on Etsy. (Trademark Licensing Program)

IOWA CITY — As Kim Schultz’s work began to slow and the coronavirus pandemic continued to surge, the Wisconsin woman last month was motivated after meeting with her colleagues to fashion her own homemade face masks.

Many of them didn’t have face coverings and most weren’t wearing them, so Schultz churned out a quick 30 or 40 for her co-workers and posted the extras for sale on an Etsy account she had created to sell her aunt’s doilies and wash rags.

On day one, Schultz landed $42 in mask orders. The next day, she netted $100 in orders. By the third night, her orders spiked to $2,400.

“My brother has a master’s degree in marketing and finance, and he said, ‘Well you’re obviously not charging enough, Kim,’” she said.

So she upped the price, which did not slow the orders. On day four, she amassed $8,600 in orders.

“At that point,” Schultz said, “I called in help.”

With support from neighbors and family members, along with JoAnn Fabric, Schultz and her helpers churned out masks made with patriotic material, cartoon themes, Star Wars decals and all sorts of team and school affiliations.

She did the Green Bay Packers. The Wisconsin Badgers. The Minnesota Twins. And the University of Iowa Hawkeyes.

And on May 20, after weeks of scaling up her mask-making operation, Schultz got an email from Etsy, the popular e-commerce website.

It was from the Etsy legal department — courtesy of the UI Trademark Licensing Office.

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“Dear Kimberly,” the message said. “Etsy received a notice of trademark infringement from University of Iowa alleging that certain material on Etsy is not authorized.”

The message said her product had been deactivated and she would need to take up concerns about the action with “the authorized representative of University of Iowa who provided Etsy with the notice.” Or, the message said, she could talk to an attorney.

Schultz never reached out because Etsy never deactivated her Hawkeye mask post. But the Etsy message surprised her, since she bought the UI fabric from JoAnn’s.

“I’m buying fabric in the licensed fabric section at JoAnn’s and you pay a premium for that,” she said. “If it didn’t have the Hawkeye logo on it, it’s maybe $4.99 a yard. If it’s got a Hawkeye logo on it, it’s anywhere from $12.99 to $15.99 a yard. So you pay the licensing fee.”

Schultz got the message from Etsy the day after The Gazette reported the UI had issued a call for proposals from suppliers interested in making 10,000 Hawkeye-branded cloth masks or face and neck coverings.

The Gazette reported in the article that other UI- and Hawkeye-themed masks already were being sold on Etsy. Some of the makers later said they had not been contacted by either Etsy or UI representatives.

Take Taylor Freitag, a 35-year-old stay-at-home mother of three girls, who started making masks out of her Fort Madison home for donation in mid-March and then ramped up her operation by creating an Etsy page about a month ago to sell them.

She’s made themed masks using UI, University of Kansas and Kansas City Royals fabric — but hasn’t heard from any of their legal departments or from Etsy.

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Hal Wilson, 49, of Adel, also purchased licensed fabric from JoAnn’s and has about 2,500 UI masks “ready to ship.” He has them posted for sale on his personal website — www.ppebyh3.com — but also hasn’t heard from UI trademark, licensing or legal officials.

UI trademarks and licensing officials did interact May 20 with an Etsy mask vendor who disputed the contention she was infringing on the Hawkeye trademark.

“Your mistake has severely influenced our income,” according to the vendor, who goes by “MimisAunt Store,” according to documents the UI provided to The Gazette following a public records request. “If you don’t respond to us within 2 business days, we will seek legal actions for our business loss.”

A UI official responded to the vendor by contending, “To the contrary, your postings clearly display and solicit for sale University of Iowa trademarked items.”

As part of its response, the UI also noted it “monitors multiple online platforms, including Etsy, in its efforts to protect its trademarks and shall continue to do so.”

Besides protecting the university’s image and reputation, the Trademark Licensing Program generates royalty fees that support scholarships for the university’s student athletes.

“Enforcing the university’s trademarks with individuals or vendors who are selling items, regardless of the product, is an ongoing effort for the Trademark Licensing Program,” UI spokeswoman Anne Bassett said in a statement. “The UI acts when it becomes aware of an infringement, which is consistent with the overall industry practices of other colleges, professional sports, the entertainment industry, etc.”

The program encourages consumers to “look for the label” to help make sure the items they’re buying are not from counterfeiters.

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UI officials didn’t answer direct questions from The Gazette about why the program has contacted some online face-mask vendors but not others.

For Schultz, who said she thought she was buying licensed Hawkeye fabric and providing a public good, the message is confounding.

“The small business owners on Etsy are not threatening the University of Iowa,” she said.

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Our most important Coronavirus coverage is free to the public.

If you believe local news is essential, especially during this crisis, please donate. Your contribution will support news resources to cover the impact of the pandemic on our local communities.

All donations are tax-deductible.