California Lawmakers: No More Trademarking on Public Land

As the Yosemite trademark case drags on, California legislators look to take a stand

Feb 19, 2016
Outside
Outside Magazine
California Lawmakers: No More Trademarking on Public Land

A debate about who owns the naming rights to iconic places in Yosemite National Park has prompted state lawmakers to take action.    Photo: Nemanja Pantelic/Flickr

Ken Cooley is from a Yosemite family. The California state assemblyman raised his boys on hikes in the valley; he took a pack mule trip through the park with friends and colleagues this summer; his grandparents even worked together at the Ahwahnee Hotel way back when.

So the news last month that Delaware North, a privately held company that ran concessions inside the park until last year, had trademarked the names of the park’s most iconic places—Curry Village, Badger Pass, the Ahwahnee, and even “Yosemite National Park” itself—left Cooley flabbergasted. “It is surreal, outrageous,” he says. The National Park Service, as a result of the trademark dispute, will be changing the names of sites as early as March 1.

As an elected state official, Cooley can’t do anything about the Yosemite name changes. A legal challenge to the trademarks from NPS is currently wending its way through the courts and, besides, NPS is a federal agency. But the assemblyman, a Democrat who represents an area outside Sacramento, took it upon himself to try to prevent something like this from ever happening again in California.

Cooley, who is also an attorney, on Thursday introduced legislation to block any concessionaire from trademarking the name of a California State Park. Doing so “derogates the interests of California and the shared history of Californians,” Cooley wrote in the bill. The law would void any contract with a company that trademarks a state park name, and, critically, prevents the government from doing future business with the company.

“Our state parks are not like football or baseball stadiums, trading sponsorship deals to the highest bidder,” adds co-author Adam Gray, whose district includes Yosemite, in a February 18 statement sent to Outside.

If the bill is passed and other states follow California’s lead, Cooley says, concessionaires would be dissuaded from trademarking what he calls America’s “cultural heirlooms.” “You’d realize, as a concessionaire, that if I am out there trying to assert trademarks on treasured cultural names, I’m jeopardizing my ability to continue in the concessions business,” Cooley says.

Kelly McCarthy, a trademark attorney in San Francisco and partner at Sideman Bancroft, says the idea to target concessionaire’s contracts is the simplest way to prevent the problem from happening again in the future.

“A lot of this could be solved with people being heads-up about the issue” and paying attention to contracts, McCarthy says. “That obviously did not happen in the Yosemite case.”

The debate in Yosemite is dragging on, even as NPS prepares to start swapping out park signs embossed with the trademarked names next week. Delaware North, which owns DNC Parks and Resorts, the subsidiary that ran concessions in the park, says the names it trademarked are worth $51 million. The park service’s plan to drop all of the park’s most famous names, McCarthy says, is likely an effort to reduce the value of Delaware North’s trademarks. Once the Ahwahnee Hotel is renamed the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, NPS’s reasoning goes, the trademark for “Ahwahnee Hotel” won’t be worth much. According to NPS, Delaware North’s trademarks will be worth only $3.5 million after the name changes.

Still, McCarthy, who attends a yearly family reunion in Curry Village—or Half Dome Village, come March—says she’s optimistic. “I am hopeful, ultimately, that an agreement will be reached where the names go back to what they once were, pending litigation—however long that takes.” 

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