Harvard is trying to trademark the name of its popular computer science course, CS50.

Many people and businesses have become hyper-vigilant when it comes to protecting their intellectual property and with good reason. So when does it cross a line from prudence to ridiculous? One can never be sure, but an example could be the ongoing battle between Harvard University and David Malan – a professor at the school – over trademarking the name of its introductory computer science course, CS50.

To be fair, the course has generated quite the buzz, especially since Malan became the lead instructor in 2007. It has become the largest class offered at Harvard and has become so popular that Harvard established a satellite version of the course at Yale and incorporated it into its free online offerings on HarvardX. So it makes sense that both parties would claim dibs on the CS50 name.

A back-and-forth battle since 2012

The trademark conflict over CS50 all started almost five years ago. The Crimson reportedthat Malan filed four applications with the U.S. Trademark and Patent Office to trademark not only the name of the course, “CS50”, but also it’s slogan “THIS IS CS50” over the course of 2011 and 2012.

David Malan. Image via Harvard CS.

Months after his first trademark application, Malan also formed a limited liabilities company. He filed a certificate of organization with the Massachusetts Secretary of the Commonwealth for “CS50 LLC”, which was dissolved by the Secretary of the Commonwealth in 2015 because Malan failed to file any of the mandatory annual reports beyond 2012.

He encountered some speed bumps in the process, though. All of Malan’s trademark attempts were done without a lawyer, which is likely the reason why his applications were held up for revisions. In November of 2012, Malan’s applications for trademark registrations were finally published for opposition in the Trademark Official Gazette, giving anyone the 30 days to contest them. Malan almost made it, but Harvard caught them right in time and requested an extension on the opposition period so the university could file an official opposition.

Except no formal opposition was needed. Malan withdrew all of his trademark applications for “CS50” and “THIS IS CS50” about a month after Harvard requested an opposition extension.

Harvard restarts the CS50 trademark attempts

Why is all of this relevant? It appears that, years later, someone is after the CS50 trademark again. This time, it’s Harvard. This past December, Harvard filed trademark applications for “CS50”, as well as “CS50x” because of the course’s affiliation with the online college consortium edX.

“It would seem that this is a unique case,” Andrew Beckerman-Rodau, professor and co-director of the IP Law Concentration at Suffolk University Law School, explained. “With trademark rights, though, there’s a common misconception that you can trademark any name or phrase. But there actually has to be a mental association for it to be registered as a trademark.”

There’s a reason why people can’t go around trademarking any and all words like “chair” or “American.” For a trademark to be legitimate, it has to be connected and commonly associated to the person or business trying to register it. So in the case of CS50, it could really go any way, especially because the world of academia is inconsistencies in terms of whether a school or professor owns the rights to different types of work.

“When it comes to a course name, it would be hard to establish a mental association,” Beckerman-Rodau said. “It’s a popular course and is well known so it could be possible if people associate the name of the course with this one guy. He may be able to claim trademark rights in that case. Or Harvard may be able to claim them if it’s actually associated with the school.”

Why trademark a free course?

Right now, Harvard’s applications for its CS50 and CS50x trademarks are still pending. If they go through, they’ll be added to a never-ending list of trademarks Harvard owns, most of which are the names of its schools and their various shields.

So why would Harvard want to trademark the course’s name? It’s free to take online, so it’s not like it has a financial stake in CS50. According to Bekerman-Rodau, it could be taking preemptive measures.

“It could be driven by concern. The Harvard course is part of the edX consortium, which is popular. With these online courses, it hasn’t looked for a way to make money off of them, so if someone else does, the name becomes valuable. It may want to trademark the name solely for the purpose of insurance – to protect the name in case it’s worth something in the future.”

Featured image via Niklas Tenhaef, CC BY-SA.