In an online education battle playing out in Florida, the state’s Supreme Court has given a green light for the continuation of a Florida Virtual School trademark-infringement lawsuit against K12 Inc.
The court’s unanimous decision, released Thursday, came with a 19-page opinion that the Orlando-based Florida Virtual School does, indeed, have the authority to bring such a lawsuit against K12 Inc., a Herndon, Va.-based company that delivers online education in Florida under the name Florida Virtual Academy, now Florida Virtual Academies.
K12 had contended that only the Florida Department of State could file such a claim because all school trademarks are owned by the state, according to the statute that established Florida Virtual School. The Supreme Court panel, in the opinion written by Justice R. Fred Lewis, disagreed.
Florida Virtual School is an Orlando-based state agency that provides online education to districts in Florida, and to students in other states, using the acronym FLVS. Its federal lawsuit, filed in May 2011, alleged that Florida Virtual Academy infringed on its trademark and caused market confusion.
As our School Law blogger Mark Walsh wrote, Florida Virtual School’s suit challenged K12’s adoption of the name Florida Virtual Academy for its services in the state, its use of the acronym FLVA, and challenged K12’s payment for a sponsored listing on a Web address that was similar to Florida Virtual School’s site to divert traffic to its business.
K12 fought the suit, asserting in a court document that the Florida Department of Education was aware of K12’s use of trademarks such as Florida Virtual Academy, and “in fact, expressly approved such use.” The company also uses “virtual academy” in other states, it pointed out. K12 argued that Florida Virtual School was not the legal owner of the trademarks under Florida law and thus could not bring the federal trademark-infringement suit. A federal district court agreed and dismissed the suit last October, but now the state supreme court has overturned that dismissal and returned the case to the 11th Circuit Court in Atlanta.
Launched in 1997, Florida Virtual School became open to competition in 2003 when the state started a pilot program allowing other online providers to serve a limited number of students, including K12. Education Week has covered the challenges faced by the virtual school in recent years.
Potentially adding to the naming confusion, Florida Virtual School has been referred to with a connected name—FloridaVirtual School in its amalgamated form—and as distinct words. The state supreme court decided to address it the latter way, which is how it describes itself. K12’s Florida Virtual Academy now goes by the plural “Academies,” but was referred to as “Academy” in the opinion.