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Phone Company Illegally Uses MIT Name

By Carina Fung

Last month, the Institute sent a letter to a local communications company named SmallWorld Communications, asking it to refrain from illicitly using MIT's telephone directory and making unauthorized references to MIT in its promotional mailings.

This is not the first time organizations outside of MIT have used the Institute's name to endorse their products without consent, said Thomas R. Henneberry, director of insurance and legal affairs. "About five cease-and-desist letters are sent to organizations each year," usually because of an infringement on MIT's name or logo, he said.

Only staff received mailings

Henneberry was one of the original recipients of SmallWorld's letters of solicitation. He said he does not believe that any letters were sent to students. He was notified by at least a dozen other employees who received the same mailing and were curious as to whether MIT had authorized it. Concern was also raised as to how addresses of staff members had been obtained, he said.

The Office of the Secretary of the Corporation also contacted Henneberry to discuss how this issue should be presented to the MIT community, in explaining how this mailing was not an authorized contract.

In mid-April, Henneberry sent an e-mail message to all administrative officers at MIT to "provide notice that a recent written solicitation regarding cellular telephones received by many MIT staff from SmallWorld Communications was in no way sanctioned by the Institute."

Henneberry also indicated that he would try to determine how SmallWorld had accessed an Institute telephone directory and that there would be an attempt to prevent such access in the future.

"With SmallWorld's use of MIT's initials in their letter, implication could have been drawn that MIT was endorsing this mechanism of contact [through obtaining addresses from the telephone directory]. This implication was absolutely invalid," Henneberry said.

"When the initials MIT are used in factual representation, there is nothing we can do. However, when it crosses the threshold of using MIT as an implication of endorsement, it is illegal," Henneberry said. When such cases arise, the Technology Licensing Office usually sends out a letter requesting the cease-and-desist of the illegal use of MIT's name or logo, he said.

Parent company was notified

A cease-and-desist letter was sent to Unplugged Communications in Portland, Ore., which is the parent company of SmallWorld Commun-ications, Henneberry said. In response, President of Unplugged Communications Marcello Claure apologized to Henneberry over the telephone for their inappropriate use of MIT's name and agreed to "cease and desist from any such contact with MIT employees."

Claure also agreed that an investigation into the method which SmallWorld Communications used to obtain staff addresses was needed and that he would conduct it.

"Unlike other universities where much money is made off of the college logo and name through famous sports teams, the MIT logo represents years of research and the Institute's priceless image, which must always be protected," said Lita Nelsen, director of the TLO.

To the best of her knowledge, there have been no legal suits pressed in court concerning the infringement of MIT's name, Nelsen said. Most people realize the strength of MIT's name and do not wish to fight it, she added.

Bank also infringed on MIT's logo

A similar unauthorized use of MIT's name occurred in January last year, when a mass-mailing selling "MIT Internet Banking" was distributed to a large number of students. Security First Network Bank was behind the illicit solicitation, and sent the brochures through a company called On-Campus Marketing ["Internet Bank Mass Mailing Used MIT's Trademark Illegally," Feb. 20, 1996].

Alarm had been raised over how the bank and On-Campus Marketing had been able to attain students' addresses; there had also been concern about the header on the brochure, "MIT Internet Banking," since MIT never endorsed the bank or allowed the name to be used.

On-Campus Marketing had bought a list of MIT student addresses from American Student Lists, a company that has lists of home and school addresses of college students. A cease-and-desist letter was sent to On-Campus Marketing, which later apologized for its actions.