John Wayne's Heirs Are Suing Duke University for the Right to Make 'Duke' Bourbon

John Wayne Photograph by Everett Collection

OK, here’s a mental experiment: Think of the word “Duke.” What do you conjure? The Southern school with a pretty good basketball team? The grizzled Hollywood actor in a cowboy hat, perhaps atop a horse? The jazz legend? The energy company?

That general, amorphous perception the public has about the word Duke is at the center of a dispute between the heirs of the late actor John “The Duke” Wayne—who want to sell a bourbon with his likeness—and the North Carolina university, which wants any “Duke” product branding to be clearly connected to the man. As a result, John Wayne Enterprises, of Newport Beach, Calif., has sued the school seeking a judicial judgment to remove what it calls “the cloud of an eventual infringement claim” by Duke University.

“Apparently, Duke University believes that products bearing John Wayne’s world renowned image and signature, like the bottle of bourbon … will somehow be confused as being associated with Duke University,” the company says in its suit, filed on July 3 in U.S. District Court in Santa Ana, Calif. The family considers that contention to be “ludicrous,” the lawsuit says.

Wayne succumbed to cancer in 1979, but remains a Hollywood icon with enormous commercial value. He was born Marion Robert Morrison, but never liked the name Marion, and had a dog named Duke while growing up in Southern California. The dog’s name replaced Marion—and Marion R. Morrison became John Wayne for the budding actor’s first starring role, in The Big Trail, in 1930.

A spokesman for Duke, the university, Michael Schoenfeld, says the school does not object to selling liquor or other products with the term “The Duke” if the products “unmistakably connect” themselves to John Wayne with words or an image. “However, this suit seeks to establish their ability to use the name ‘Duke’ even without an explicit connection to Mr. Wayne, which Duke University opposes because of the potential for confusion,” Schoenfeld said on Tuesday in an e-mail. He said the Durham (N.C.) school and JWE have worked together successfully for more than a decade on past trademark issues.

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