Regent’s clashes with US evangelists over title

Religious body seeks secular redress for ‘trademark infringement’

October 3, 2013

Regent University, an evangelical Christian institution in the US, sounds like a one-off.

“Focused strategy and Divine Providence have accelerated Regent’s reputation as a global center for Christian thought and action,” says the website of the institution, founded in 1978 as Christian Broadcasting Network University by television evangelist Pat Robertson, who recently accused gay men of knowingly spreading HIV by shaking hands using special rings.

But the US institution, which started using its current title in 1989, is suing the newly named Regent’s University London in a UK trademark case, alleging that students and employers could confuse the two bodies.

According to a transcript of an interim court judgment, Regent University has also claimed that confusion over the name might damage its “reputation among other evangelical Christians” – citing the case of a Regent’s University London academic who welcomed the advent of gay marriage in England and Wales in a university press release.

The case may also raise legal questions about the way the Department for Business, Innovation and Skills grants university status to private institutions.

A July judgment in the England and Wales Patents County Court, where the US university is suing for trademark infringement, provides details of the case.

The dispute began last year when Regent’s University London, a private charitable institution formerly known as Regent’s College, invited comments on its proposed new title.

The process established by BIS for private providers seeking university title, carried out under company name legislation, leaves it to the applicant to consult over the proposed name.

This is different from the traditional route to the title used by publicly funded institutions, where the Privy Council also has a role in deciding on the name.

Regent’s University London contacted Regent University and others, seeking their views on the title. The US university objected, but after the deadline set by the UK institution for responses: by that time, Regent’s University London had already contacted BIS to say there had been a positive response from all but seven of 167 respondents.

Aldwyn Cooper, vice-chancellor of Regent’s University London, told Times Higher Education that his institution had not passed the Regent University objection on to BIS because it “had not come back” in the allotted time period. He rejected any suggestion there could be confusion between the two institutions.

Dennis Farrington, visiting fellow at the Oxford Centre for Higher Education Policy Studies and co-author of The Law of Higher Education, said that the title legislation binding publicly funded universities “requires the Privy Council to have regard to avoiding names that may be confusing”.

But he added that he could not see “any equivalent as such” in the company name legislation used by BIS for private providers.

Regent’s University London has filed its own legal action in a European court, seeking to have Regent University’s trademark on its name revoked in the European Union.

In the July judgment in the England and Wales court, a judge rejected the argument for an injunction forcing Regent’s University London to change its name.

Both legal cases continue.

A Regent University spokeswoman said there was “substantial evidence of confusion on the part of students and others” following the name change at Regent’s University London.

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Reader's comments (2)

As vice chancellor of Regent's University London (RUL), I would like to make one correction to the article above, one addition and one observation. Dennis Farrington is confused on the matter of process for acquiring university title. BIS has been careful to ensure that both public and private institutions go through equivalent scrutiny. In fact, non state funded institutions have to go through rather more, as they have not previously been under the direct oversight of HEFCE. The process for agreeing name specifies exactly the same requirements. BIS reviews the consultation outcomes and makes a recommendation to the Privy Council in the case of state funded institutions and provides a letter on non-objection to Companies House. The BIS process stipulates a minimum consultation period of four weeks. RUL allowed a period of eight weeks to the more than 300 institutions consulted worldwide, many of which had the word Regent in their title. The seven objections came from elements of London University and UUK objecting to the word London, which is of course, a qualifier used by many - Metropolitan, South Bank, East and West - and cannot be copyrighted. Finally, as the judge in the Patent County Court observed, there are actually many universities all over the world that even have the same name and they have always managed to co-exist and it strange to see one charity taking action against another in these circumstances. We would certainly not wish to be confused with a small, narrowly focused US institution that appears to be more focused on litigation - there have had to withdraw from other similar cases - than on the real objectives of an educational charity which is to generate knowledge, stimulate thought and provide a valuable and inclusive learning experience. Then, of course, we do not believe that there is any prospect of genuine or damaging confusion. We expect to resolve this positively in the near future. Aldwyn Cooper
Sorry Aldwyn, I'm not confused at all. My comment was only that there is no equivalent in the 'companies route' to the provision dating from 1988 requiring the Privy Council to avoid names which are confusing. This is just one of a number of areas in which we need to update our higher education law. I do not take any position on the case itself. Dennis Farrington