Oops! National Park Service doesn’t own trademarks for Yosemite properties
The National Park Service recently announced a very big change in regard to the famous Yosemite National Park. Going forward, many of the familiar buildings and landmarks will have a new name. The Ahwahnee Hotel will heretofore be known as the Majestic Yosemite Hotel. Wawona Hotel will now be known as Big Trees Lodge and The Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area will substitute for the famous Badge Pass Ski Area.
While it may seem that the change was designed to capitalize on the SEO value of the keyword Yosemite, it’s actually the unwelcome response to an ugly lawsuit; a lawsuit that should have every business owner tightening the reins on their own names and trademarks.
Here’s what happened.
The National Park Service owns and manages the actual land within its borders. But the hotels, the activities, sightseeing tours, souvenir shops and snack stands are all operated by a private company. In the case of Yosemite National Park, that company is DNC. They’ve had the concessions contract since 1993, but on March 1st, they’ll be handing the keys over to a new company.
When DNC found out that they had lost the contract to a new company they brought up a point they’d neglected to share. They’d trademarked the now famous names of the park’s hotels, hills and tourist attractions. They even got the merchandising rights to the phrase “Yosemite National Park”. They’re happy to turn over the trademarks to the new concessionaire in return for a fair price – $44 million.
The US government says the actual value of those trademarks is more like $3.5 million. And that might be the case once they get done changing every sign, brochure, T-shirt and postcard in the area. How valuable can the name “Ahwahnee Hotel” be if it doesn’t exist anymore?
One thing they won’t change is the name of the park which could mean we’ve seen the end of “Yosemite National Park” T-shirts. Remember, DNC has the merchandising rights to the name. (eBay sellers are going to have a field day!)
Since the park service has chosen to rename the iconic properties it would appear that they have no intention of buying the trademarks from DNC. But here’s the rub. Legal analysts say the new concessionaire will likely have to pay up because buying out the previous owner of the contract is part of the deal. If that happens, the National Park Service still won’t own the rights to the old trademarks. Those rights will go over to the new concessionaire. Hopefully, the Park Service has learned a lesson and has already laid claim to the new names that will go into effect on March 1.
This entire case is particularly odd because it involves a private company owning the names associated with a public landmark. But that has to make you think. If this can happen to one of the nation’s most well-known parks, it can happen to you.
How to Prevent Trademark Hijacking
The key to protecting yourself from a trademark hijack is always staying ahead of curve. What products are you developing? What advertising slogans do you plan on using in the coming year? What images? Without a crystal ball, it’s tough to say which of those names and phrases will need protecting but putting in the due diligence before a name or phrase takes off is always better than fighting it out in court later. You might have right on your side but can you afford a lengthy legal battle?
Once you’ve secured a trademark, it’s a good idea to conduct regular Google searches for anyone else using the words. Two companies can have the same name but if they’re in the same business you might have a case. What you’re really looking for are people who have co-opted your trademark for the purposes of misleading customers or slandering your company. Popular companies and celebrities run into this all the time on social media.
Twitter will back a company if it can prove that another Twitter handle is causing confusion. The injured company can then take control of the offending account or have it deleted.
The case of the public park vs the angry concessionaires happened because one side saw the value in the collection of names and phrases while the other party naturally assumed they had control.
Who’s in control of your product names, images and oft-quoted phrases? If it’s not you, open a new browser tab right now and find a trademark lawyer. If you’re worried about the cost, think about how much Yosemite is going to have to pay to have every sign, brochure and souvenir reprinted.