The University of Denver sent a cease-and-desist letter to a startup company that’s employing undergraduate students to give virtual campus tours to prospective Pioneers.
The startup, LiveCampusTours by Nylie, claims the private university is trying to stifle student speech to control its marketing message, while the university argues the company is violating intellectual property laws by displaying DU’s name on their website.
“This group was not authorized to use the university’s intellectual property,” DU spokesman Jon Stone.
LiveCampusTours is employing students at about 175 colleges and universities across the country — including DU, Colorado State University, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Colorado Colorado Springs and Colorado College — paying the undergraduates $20 an hour to hold personalized, virtual campus tours for $39.
DU is the only university thus far to threaten a $100,000 fee per violation if the start-up continues using the university’s name on their website.
“We are baffled as to why they think we can’t use the words ‘University of Denver’ on our site,” said Seth Kugel, LiveCampusTours by Nylie co-founder. “We’re not worried about losing a case to them.”
The draw of the LiveCampusTours, Kugel said, is that they’re not scripted by university admissions offices, meaning the tour guides can provide more candid information and structure the virtual campus walks around the client’s interests and questions.
“We had a student take a tour at the University of Michigan and the student said they want to see the best places to get a sandwich and the football stadium,” Kugel said. “Instead of talking about the things you’d normally hear about, this guy who took this other person on a tour basically just took him to where he likes to go out to eat late at night and showed him what kind of people were there, and was comfortable talking about what life is like there.”
Stone at DU also noted that the startup is selling something that the university offers for free.
“Also, they are offering someone as a tour guide that I have no way of confirming if they are actually a student,” Stone said.
To apply to be guide with the startup, Kugel said, students must fill out an application about what they like about their school, provide an image of a current student ID, use their school email in most cases and go through an online training and a live training where the company can compare them with their ID image. All tours are recorded in case there is an issue that needs to be reviewed.
Sada Rice, a 20-year-old Colorado College student, signed up to be a tour guide this fall when the company launched. Rice has yet to have any students request a LiveCampusTour from her, but she looks forward to her first spin around campus.
“I think it’s cool because LiveCampusTour gives you freedom to do it the way you want,” Rice said. “They do give outlines on things like how to make an awkward high schooler feel comfortable, but I can be honest if I want to criticize CC in any way. You can’t learn too much from only hearing the good. I have school pride and I wouldn’t give a negative tour, but it allows you to be honest without any liability.”
Rice, who gave tours for her high school, said she applied to be an official Colorado College tour guide but the spots are so competitive that she didn’t make the cut.
Rice said the gig seemed like a fun way to make some money during the pandemic and also connect with prospective future students at a time when making connections are more difficult.
Two local copyright lawyers said the university’s cease-and-desist letter seems to be “grasping at straws.”
“It’s a very thin argument,” Denver trademark attorney Peter Lemire said. “Trademark law protects against consumer confusion so if consumers saw the University of Denver listing on this website, would they be confused about the services provided being affiliated with them. The University of Denver is attempting to use the trademark law in a way it’s not really designed to.”
Tamara Pester, another Denver trademark attorney, said because the startup has a conspicuous disclaimer on the home page that LiveCampusTours is not affiliated with any college, so it would be unlikely that students or parents would be confused by the services.
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