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Copyright Copycat?

Former University Employee Claims Logo Design Was Infringed

On May 15, 2024, Sophia Boyages (“Plaintiff” or “Ms. Boyages”) filed a Complaint against the University of Vermont and the State Agricultural College (“Defendants” or “the University”) alleging copyright infringement under 17 U.S.C. § 501. Ms. Boyages alleges that the University knowingly and unlawfully used an art-designed logo (“logo” or “art design”) created by the Plaintiff without her authorization or license and is therefore entitled to damages and monetary relief according to 17 U.S.C. § 504.

Green and yellow stylized logo of roaring catamount
Figure 1 SophCat logo by Sophia Boyages, 2023, Exhibit 1.

In her complaint, Ms. Boyages states that she was an employee of the Athletic Department at the University of Vermont when she was invited to be part of a new brand working group in January 2023. She claims that outside of her working hours and not in her capacity as an administrative assistant, she designed a logo depicting a catamount, which she presented to members of the working group on January 31, 2023. Ms. Boyages asserts that she created the logo without using or receiving any resources, contribution, or oversight from her job, and that the work was intended to be presented to the members of the board of the athletic department to "showcase her skills and value in hopes of being promoted." (Complaint pg. 4).

After Ms. Boyages presenting the art design to the working group, the University started using the logo in its products and advertised it as one of its brands. According to Ms. Boyages, the University of Vermont and the State Agricultural College used her art design without permission. They allegedly copied, reproduced, displayed, and published it on social media, clothing, sports equipment, and wall signage in the University’s facilities. She also claims that the University applied for a trademark with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office even though it knew that the art design did not belong to it. Ms. Boyages contends that she did not receive any compensation and that the defendants did not even seek authorization or a license to use the work. She believes that the University received financial profits directly from the use of her logo and that in the past, the University had to pay millions for designing logos, but now it is using hers for free. Id at 5.

After 11 months, Ms. Boyages applied for copyright registration and had her work registered as SophCat. The Copyright Office issued the Registration on February 20, 2024.

Now the case waits for the defendants to file their response to Ms. Boyages' allegations, and they have 60 days to do so. The court will then assign a judge to the case who will oversee the subsequent steps of the proceedings.

This is an instance of an interesting case, which might raise questions concerning whether Ms. Boyages' work can be considered a work for hire or not. Even if Ms. Boyages is deemed the copyright holder, there is also the possibility that she might have given an implicit license by creating and bringing the art design to the workplace with that intended purpose. Who will prevail in this story? We have yet to see. Further updates will roll out as the case evolves.