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OTIS vs. Otis College of Art and Design

(aka. What's in a name?)

Go to the OTIS/SITO main thing.

(JUMP DOWN to Feb 25, 1996 update.)

SHORT: OTIS had to change its name to SITO due to a trademark dispute with the Otis College of Art and Design.


This is a strange little anecdote in the strange little history of the SITO(OTIS) artchive and collabodome. You see, for nearly three years, OTIS (an acronym for Operative Term is Stimulate) operated unassumingly and unintrusively as an on-line art archive (often called the OTIS Gallery) and a base for many multi-user art collaborations (more history). While this is still very much the case, OTIS is now (as of October 1995) known as SITO (pronounced however you like, I like "sea-toe") because of a trademark dispute with the Otis College of Art and Design in California USA.

Apparently the Otis College of Art and Design (OCAD) thought that OTIS was trying to confuse, bemuddle and basically rip-off their reputation as a "world-renowned art institution". While this couldn't be further from the truth (most of the over 200 people on the OTIS emailing-list hadn't even heard of the school, let alone have it in mind to cash in on their name), the lawyers for the school proceded to take legal action against OTIS' founder and maintainer, Ed Stastny (me). First came an uncertified letter in late July 1995. The letter was on legal letterhead from some multi-named law office in LA and basically demanded that OTIS cease and desist using its name by the second week in August. I ignored it and didn't even mention it to the OTIS mailing list. It was not a certified letter, so they couldn't be THAT serious about it... besides... we were totally different types of organizations.... they were a school, OTIS was a collective. Seemed logical and clear to me.

I guess the lawyers and the school were serious, because a few days after their imposed line-in-the-sand-day, I received a certified letter stating about the same thing as the first. This time I made the letter public to the OTIS mailing list and began to seek informal legal advice. Long-time OTISts talked to friends who were lawyers, I talked to friends and sent email to the EFF guys. After several days of angry in-house retorts to the name-dispute, legal advice dropped on us like wet parachutes... given current laws on trademark and fair usage, the school had a fairly solid case. This was bad news. A name I'd just picked out of the air (I was originally going to call OTIS "Stimulate", but when I was typing up an invitation for artists to put work on it, the first line came out "Operative Term is STIMULATE"...then it kind of took on a life of its own) was now being taken away from me. All involved with OTIS had speant nearly three years evolving the site from an FTP archive to a full-fledged and multi-mirrored web-site. We'd had write-ups and reviews in dozens of international magazines and books, OTIS t-shirts were printed, we had people (very very cool people) linking to us from all over the web, we even had the domain name "OTIS.ORG" registered and running... we were established and the name was the gateway to all we'd built. Now this name was going to be taken away from us.

To be fair, Otis School did have a reason to be grabby-grabby about their goofy old name. They contended that some people were confused by our site into thinking it might contain artwork by their students or alumni. They thought that our OTIS Gallery might be confused with their own Otis Gallery. Understandable (if somewhat anal). When deadline came for response to their certified letter (we're at about mid/late August now), I faxed them a personal response offering up a compromise.... mutual disclaimers and I'd stop using Gallery to refer to OTIS' archive of art. By this time, I'd already pegged up a disclaimer on the main OTIS page stating our total non-affiliation and I'd renamed the OTIS Gallery to the OTIS Artchives. I figured that this would at least show I had no intention of ripping off their reputation (and from what I've heard about the school's new management, I wouldn't want to get any of that action).

Nearly two months went by with no response from the school. They had my email address, phone number and address... so they could have easily screamed at me in many separate media. Figuring no news was great news, life proceded with as much regularity as it had before the assault. OTIS.ORG was fixed up and people just laughingly grumbled about that "whole Otis school fiasco". Then, one October afternoon, I visited my post-office box and found another letter from the lawdogs representing Otis School. It was a thick letter, but uncertified... so I didn't really know what to think (thick = bad, uncertified = casual). I lugged all of my mail to my car, most of it was OTIS related stuff... submissions, show openings, etc. I tore open the bad news... Otis School thought that mutual disclaimers was "totally unacceptable" and that they were going to procede with a trademark case against me (copy of papers included in the envelope, making it that ominous thick) if I didn't respond within five days of the mail. They claimed jurisdiction in California and sought damages of more than US$50,000. I hadn't checked my box in several days and my five days was up THAT DAY! No way!

Synergy Communications, a network service provider headquartered in Omaha, Nebraska, I work for, generously offered the services of their lawyer to look over the paperwork Otis School had launched at me. The president of Synergy, Jamie Saker, got me on a conference call with the lawyer and we discussed options. Since the paperwork had not been filed officially and the school was offering a cease and desist, we could easily just change our name and avoid the whole mess. Opting for the more practical "get on with the project, names don't matter" attitude, I proposed the name "SITO" (with a backwards 'S'). Fine. The next day a letter was sent to the school's lawyers and the domain name "SITO.ORG" was registered. Yes, they can legally come after the domain name "OTIS.ORG" if we used it for the art stuff.... but I've temporarily given it to some friends doing a dream research and exploration project (Oneronauts (sp?) Translating Insane Subconcious).

We've yet to receive a response from the school as of November 5th, 1995.

FEB 25, 1996

The school accepted our offer, but recently demanded that we write formal letters to YAHOO and LYCOS to ask them to remove any links to OTIS. (sigh) Did it... now that should be the last of them. They've got their own website now and are arguably ripping US off. Their school name is spelled in all lower-case... but there is at least one reference on their home page where the name "Otis" is actually spelled "OTIS" (as if it were, say, an ACRONYM). There is no context to support the all-caps reference... so one can only assume that they're trying to steal some of OUR reputation. Sad, very sad.

Long live SITO!

Last updated Feb 25 1996
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