Duke University Suing John Wayne’s Family Over Use Of Legendary Actor’s Nickname

Duke University is suing John Wayne’s family over use of the legendary cowboy’s nickname. The Duke vs Duke copyright infringement lawsuit is part of an ongoing debate between the university and the actor’s family over placement of the Duke’s moniker next to his likeness on products.

Ethan Wayne, one of John Wayne’s sons, is the president of John Wayne Enterprises. During an interview with Fox News, the American icon’s son said that the family respects Duke University and does not feel anyone would confuse the school with the actor by the shared name use on the products he envisions. John Wayne Enterprises and Duke University have been battling the nickname usage issue for nearly a decade, but the matter boiled over last year when Wayne’s family wanted to register the actor’s moniker for use on Duke Bourbon.

Duke University filed an appeal over the bourbon name with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. According to Fox Sports, the school felt such a product would “confuse the public.” The labels on the bottle are designed in pure rugged cowboy glory and do not display anything even remotely related to the school’s colors or mascot.

The appeal to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office read:

“Consistent with its policies and in order to prevent tarnishment of its brand, Duke University does not permit use of confusingly similar marks associated with unapproved goods or services, of uncertain quality and/or unregulated by Duke University.”


John Wayne Enterprises called the university’s argument against Duke Bourbon “ludicrous” in a federal court complaint. The Duke’s family feels that the customer bases for the alcoholic beverage and the school are completely different. While college students are prone to tilting back some booze, it does appear to defy common sense that a Blue Devil’s fan would be baffled by seeing the word “Duke” next to a tall man in a cowboy hat and emblazoned on their school spirits hoodies.

My son-in-law is 21, typical college age, so I decided to use him to conduct a clarity test. When looking at the Duke Bourbon bottle label, none of his comments about the new product had a single thing to do with Duke University. Now, James is a skilled horseman and a John Wayne fan who covets a prop gun used by the Duke in a movie that his father owns, so perhaps he might not have been the ideal test subject, but he was the one I had handy.

John Wayne Enterprises had this to say in the federal court filing:

“Duke University does not own the word ‘Duke’ in all contexts for all purposes. Duke is a common word that has been used for centuries in a wide array of commercial and other applications wholly independent of Duke University. Yet by the actions alleged herein, Duke University seems to think it owns the word ‘Duke’ for all purposes and applications.”

If recalling my high school senior term paper properly, John Wayne, born Marion Michael Morrison. The nickname Duke stems from comments made by others related to a dog. Some stories say the dog belonged to the actor, other the local fire department he often passed by in his neighborhood. The boy and the dog named Duke were great pals and onlookers dubbed the Big Duke and Little Duke — and the nickname stuck his entire life.

In the interest of full disclosure, I too am a big John Wayne fan. I can still recall where I was standing and what I was wearing on the playground when math teacher Mr. Devol, walked out and told us that John Wayne had died. Ethan Wayne played the role of “Little Jake,” the grandson of John Wayne’s character in my favorite Duke movie, Big Jake.

What do you think about Duke University suing John Wayne’s family over the use of the famous nickname?

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