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THE CAPITAL, TALLAHASSEE, September 18, 2014………. Refereeing a fight in the online-education world, the state Supreme Court on Thursdaysaid Florida Virtual School can pursue a lawsuit alleging trademark infringement by a private competitor.

Justices, in a unanimous opinion, rejected arguments that only the Florida Department of State can sue to protect trademarks of the state virtual school. The ruling went against the private K12 Inc., which provides online-education services in Florida and has used the names Florida Virtual Academy and Florida Virtual Program.

In a 19-page opinion written by Justice R. Fred Lewis, the Supreme Court said it interpreted state law as giving a “broad grant of rights and powers to the Florida Virtual School.” A law designating Florida Virtual School as a state agency was approved in 2000.

“It is reasonable to conclude that the Legislature in 2000 intended to give this new concept agency as much autonomy as possible to succeed in what was a cutting-edge educational endeavor,” the opinion said. “Requiring the Florida Virtual School to seek assistance from a different state agency to protect its legal rights, as well as school intellectual property from third-party misappropriation and misuse, would be inconsistent with overall statutory language that grants the trustees (of the virtual school) the authority to ensure the ‘proper operation and improvement’ of the school.”

Florida Virtual School filed a federal lawsuit in 2011 alleging trademark infringement. But a U.S. district judge threw out the case, saying Florida Virtual School did not have legal standing to file the case because that power is held by the Department of State.

The dispute went to the 11th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which then asked the Florida Supreme Court to rule on whether state law gives Florida Virtual School the authority to pursue the case.

In a brief filed in December, K12 Inc., said it entered into a contract with the state Department of Education in 2003 to provide online-teaching services and that the department approved the use of “Florida Virtual Academy” and “Florida Virtual Program.”

The brief said the Department of State is required under law to manage intellectual-property assets for Florida Virtual School and other state agencies.

“FLVS (Florida Virtual School) thus does not own the intellectual property it uses; the state does,” the brief said. “And the Department of State, not FLVS, may sue to protect and enforce those marks.”

But the Supreme Court outlined parts of state laws that it said give Florida Virtual School the authority to protect trademarks.

“If third parties could wrongfully appropriate the Florida Virtual School trademarks without repercussions, the school would lose customers, contracts, and revenue, and its operation would be significantly compromised,” the ruling said. “Instead, the broad and unqualified language in (a section of state law) supports our conclusion that the Legislature intended to give the Florida Virtual School the authority to file legal actions to protect school trademarks against infringement.”

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