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Trademarks in National Parks

A looming trademark dispute involving our national parks illustrates the importance of clarifying trademark ownership.

A looming trademark dispute involving our national parks illustrates the importance of clarifying trademark ownership. Photo by David Liff.  License CC-BY-SA.

Like the giant sequoias, there is a trademark dispute rising out of Yosemite National Park. Delaware North, a concessions powerhouse, has operated the hotels, restaurants, and other concessions in Yosemite since 1993. Their contract is set to expire in 2016, and as other firms line up to bid on the new contract, Delaware North has made clear to the Park Service that it claims to own the intellectual property in the names of famous sites like the Ahwahnee Hotel and Curry Village. The National Park Service disputes this claim, and says that the names, which historians suspect have been in use for over 100 years, belong to the American people. Delaware North claims the IP is worth $51 million, and says it will seek that amount if the Park Service wants to use the names without Delaware North’s permission.

Background on Trademark Law

The situation implicates some core issues of trademark law and serves as a good trademark primer for entrepreneurs unfamiliar with the field. Words, phrases, logos, and other designators of a product’s source are granted protection under federal law via the Lanham Act. While registering a trademark with the federal government grants certain protections and other benefits, one does not need to register a trademark for protection to exist. For both registered and unregistered marks, trademark protection is gained through use of the mark in commerce in a way that serves as a source designator. While registering a mark gives the registrant nationwide priority to the mark over subsequent users, the first user of any mark has rights to it, registration or not, given certain geographical and industry limitations.

Delaware North’s Potential Trademark Rights

Delaware North acquired the trademark registrations from the company from which it bought the Yosemite properties. Delaware North subsequently sold the properties to the National Park Service, but retained assets like furniture, vehicles, and as Delaware North argues, the IP) and began running the concession for the Park Service. Delaware North’s ownership of the registrations in the park properties, however, is not conclusive as to the marks’ rightful owners. As the National Park Service points out, if another party used the mark as a source designator before the registration, they could have rights in the mark. While a party that has not used a mark for more than three years is generally considered to have abandoned the mark, Delaware North should not expect the Park Service and other interested groups to give up easily.

Lessons for Entrepreneurs

The takeaway for entrepreneurs is that trademark rights can become extremely valuable and it is of the utmost importance to establish whether or not you have rights in a mark you are using early on. This can be especially important when partnering with third parties. Entrepreneurs should understand that ownership of tangible property does not necessarily mean that rights in related intellectual property are secured. As a product or service is marketed to the public under a consistent brand, the trademark rights in that brand will likely increase in value. Entrepreneurs should ensure that they have the necessary rights in any brand related to their products or services.

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