When I saw this story pop up I initially thought it had to be some sort of spoof, but it turns out to be true. A company providing hotel operations and concessions at Yosemite National Park somehow wound up owning the trademark rights for not only the name of the park, but many iconic images associated with it. These totems were used on all manner of products from t-shirts to bottled water which were sold to visitors. But the company’s contract expired recently and they left the park’s property, taking their trademarks with them. (Washington Post)
Now, an ugly legal fight over naming rights is unfolding in this beloved wildernesses. On one side, there’s the U.S government, which claims that Delaware North surreptitiously accumulated those iconic trademarks during the two decades it managed Yosemite’s concessions and is now demanding that the park pay to get them all back. On the other side, Delaware North says that it is only asking that the new concessionaire pay full value for the intellectual property it’s getting along with the park’s horse stables and hotels, just as Delaware North once had to do.
Before getting to the irony and rather grim humor in this particular food fight, I will note that it’s not all funny because of the impact on the public purse. This is a national park on federal property… literally part and parcel of the land of the free and the home of the brave. But since Delaware North owned so much of the naming rights and the government didn’t want to mess around with any further entanglements as part of the legal dispute, the park went and renamed a bunch of things. Guess who pays for that and how much it was?
Delaware North offered to let the park keep the names while the dispute played out in court. But rather than risk an injunction that might interrupt service at Yosemite, the park demurred, opting instead to temporarily change every sign and logo at a cost of $1.7 million.
On March 1, the day the old contract ended, Yosemite’s luxurious Ahwahnee Hotel, which is a National Historic Landmark, became the Majestic Yosemite. The sign for the cabins at Curry Village was altered to read “Half Dome Village” instead. T-shirts bearing “Yosemite National Park” — three words that, when used on merchandise, Delaware North also owns — were removed from gift shop shelves.
There is a parallel here between trademarks and domain names on the internet which frustrates many people when such questions are dragged into a court of law. How annoying is it to go to register a domain for your own name only to find that someone else is squatting on it and demanding a ransom to give it up? Similar problems can arise when it comes to naming rights and trademark law, but that’s how we’ve allowed the legal system to evolve. There’s a certain logic to it, of course, because when you legitimately put a lot of time and resources into building up a recognized brand you don’t want others profiting from it, but the system also has a bit of a first come first served rhythm to it.
Another area of frustration is when companies and other trademark holders get carried away with the guardianship of their brand. The NFL is notorious for this and many fan sites for sports teams have received cease and desist letters for projects which don’t even generate any revenue. If you really want to get in trouble, just try doing anything online using names, places, creatures or characters from the Lord of the Rings or the Hobbit. The Tolkien family will come down on you like a ton of bricks.
But in this case, Yosemite simply failed to guard their own interests from the sound of the reports. They allowed Delaware North to take ownership of the name of their park for the purpose of promoting it and the company invested heavily in developing, promoting and marketing the brand. Now that they’ve lost the contract they want to be paid for their investment. And if it weren’t for the cost to run off and rename everything it would still be fairly humorous.