Duke University, John Wayne’s Family in Trademark Dispute

John Wayne in the 1961 movie “The Comancheros”

John Wayne, born in Winterset, Iowa, in the 1961 movie “The Comancheros”

LOS ANGELES, California  — John Wayne’s family is fighting Duke University in federal court over the use of “Duke” to sell whiskey.

The North Carolina school filed several objections when the actor’s descendants filed for federal trademarks to use “Duke” to sell products, but the latest came last year when John Wayne Enterprises launched “Duke Kentucky Straight Bourbon Whiskey,” according to court documents.

Duke University’s claim that “Duke Bourbon” can “cause confusion and dilution” that hurts the school’s recruiting and reputation “is ludicrous,” Wayne’s family said in a lawsuit filed this month in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles.

Wayne, who was born Marion Robert Morrison, has a legitimate claim on the trademark since he acquired the nickname “Duke” as a child, the lawsuit said.

“Wayne has a dog named Duke,” the complaint said. “The local firefighters soon started calling Wayne Duke too. He preferred ‘Duke’ to ‘Marion,’ and the name stuck for the rest of his life.”

Duke University “has never been in the business of producing, marketing, distributing or selling alcohol,” but the school “seems to think it owns the word ‘Duke’ for all purposes and applications,” the suit said.

The Wayne family is asking a federal judge to declare that its uses of “Duke” to sell liquor and other products “are not likely to cause confusion, do not dilute, and do not infringe the Duke University Marks.” The family wants the judge to declare that there is “no likelihood of confusion,” which would “remove that cloud” hanging over its marketing deals.

Duke University lawyers have until later this month to file a legal response, but school spokesman Michael Schoenfeld sent a short statement to CNN in response.

“While we admire and respect John Wayne’s contributions to American culture, we are also committed to protecting the integrity of Duke University’s trademarks,” Schoenfeld said. “As Mr. Wayne himself said, ‘Words are what men live by … words they say and mean.’”

Wayne died in 1979 from cancer after a long and successful film career.

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