David Cogswell | March 03, 2016 12:00 PM ET
Delaware North's Misguided Claim of Ownership of ‘Yosemite National Park’
The airing of Ken Burns’ film “The National Parks: America’s Best Idea” on PBS in 2009 set off a national fever of appreciation for the national parks. When the number of visitors to the parks rose by 10 million between 2008 and 2009, the National Parks Service figured the film had something to do with it.
Apparently millions of Americans were moved by the film’s premise that, according to the film’s writer Dayton Duncan, “the most beautiful, the most majestic, and I would say sacred places in our nation should be set aside, not for royalty or the rich or the well connected, as it had been in all recorded history, but for everyone and for all time.”
In light of this, do you think the Delaware North, the food venue and hotel management company, had any concept of public relations when it sued the United States government claiming it owned the trademark rights for the words “Yosemite National Park”?
It sounds like someone gave Delaware North’s legal department a little too much rope and it then went ahead to do its best to hang the company.
How this all came about was that Delaware North had had the contract for operating three historic hotels in the park: the Ahwahnee Hotel, built in 1927; Curry Village, which has used that name since 1899; and Badger Pass Ski Area, which was California's first ski resort in the 1930s.
When the contracts went up for bid, as they do periodically, Delaware North lost out to another bidder, Aramark, which was given the contract for operation starting March 1. This was unfortunate for Delaware North, but a routine matter in terms of the normal procedure of awarding public contracts to the bidder that offers the government the most attractive deal.
Delaware North, however, retaliated by suing the government claiming ownership of the trademarks. Delaware North had registered the names as trademarks with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, and had even gone so far as to register the name of the park itself for commercial purposes.
But registering a trademark with the Patent and Trademark Office does not necessarily secure the trademark rights. Trademark rights are gained and maintained through the continuous use of the trademark in the marketplace. The Patent and Trademark Office only creates a record of your claim in case of a dispute. It can be superceded in court if someone else can prove they were using the trademark continuously before you.
If you stop using a trademark for a period of five years, your claim lapses and someone else can start using the trademark and lay claim to ownership. But obviously the National Park System has never lapsed in its use of the trademark “Yosemite National Park.”
You can’t expect lawyers to understand anything outside of the arcane world of legal maneuverings, but couldn’t someone in the company’s marketing or public relations departments have foreseen what a disaster such a legal stratagem would be?
Even from the standpoint of law, can anyone really think they are going to gain any traction in a lawsuit that claims that this corporation owns the trademark “Yosemite National Park”?
The park was originally established as a state park in 1864 by Abraham Lincoln “for public use, resort and recreation.” Yosemite became a national park in 1890. Now Delaware North has the audacity to claim ownership of the Yosemite National Park brand. What universe are these people living in?
Delaware North’s lawyers surely knew they could not ultimately prevail in claiming ownership of the trademark “Yosemite National Park.” It appears to have been just a legal maneuver designed to gain leverage, perhaps hoping to force the NPS to reverse its decision to award the contracts to Aramark and give the concessions back to Delaware North. Or failing that, it may have wanted a hefty settlement in return for dropping its case and saving the NPS the expense of a drawn-out legal battle.
These kinds of maneuvers are common in the legal profession, constructs of legal logic that seem like they came out of “Alice in Wonderland” to the layman, but have proven useful in the realm of legal wrangling. Lawyers tend to love these kinds of bizarre contests because they are very lucrative. They create a lot of work for the lawyers on both sides.
In this case, however, NPS undercut Delaware North’s strategy by saying, in effect, “OK, you can have the hotel trademarks. We have the park and the hotels and we’ll give the hotels new names and build up the new trademarks.”
That really spoiled the party for Delaware North, because it is true. The National Parks Service has the park. They don’t need Delaware North. Thanks in part to Ken Burns, the passion of Americans for the national parks is at an all-time peak.
Not only can the National Parks Service easily do without Delaware North, the renaming of the concessions brought the backroom legal wrangling into the light so that the public, the very public that Delaware North would be serving if it operated the concessions, would see what Delaware North was up to.
It’s hard to imagine worse publicity for Delaware North. In the centennial year of the National Parks Service, during a wave of adoration of the parks and an election year when the issue of abuse of power by big corporations is one of the front-and-center issues, couldn’t Delaware North have foreseen some problems in this strategy?
When the park decided to rename the hotels, Delaware North’s legal strategy came crashing to the ground. If the company is smart, it will withdraw the lawsuit and put the money it was investing in legal maneuvering into a public relations campaign to try to restore its own reputation and recover from the damage inflicted by its own legal department.
Most Americans who are paying attention or who have any interest in the National Parks would consider Delaware North’s claim of ownership of the trademark “Yosemite National Park” an outrage. That would apply especially to the millions of Americans who were moved by the Burns film and the premise that the National Parks belong to the people of the United States, not just to the “the rich or the well connected.”
Couldn’t that phrase “rich and well connected” sound like it might apply to a giant corporation like Delaware North that mounts a sort of coup against the National Park Service’s authority to award its concessions contracts to whomever it chooses?
Delaware North can have the trademarks to the hotels. But its claim to the words “Yosemite National Park”? Give me a break!
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