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The Yosemite Trademark Dispute Explained

DNC and the NPS battle over historic Yosemite buildings names

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Yosemite Trademark Dispute Ahwahnee Hotel
The historic Ahwahnee Hotel. Photo: Ray Bouknight/Flickr; CC BY 2.0

On February 28th, a thief stole a sign from outside the Ahwahnee Hotel in Yosemite National Park. Named after the indigenous Ahwahnechee and built in 1927, the Ahwahnee Hotel became a National Historic Landmark in 1987. Its name changed a few days after the theft. Park rangers are investigating the crime, which reaffirms that the names of historic landmarks have value.

On March 2016, Aramark became the new provider of Yosemite’s concession services. The Delaware North Company Yosemite (DNC) had operated them for the last 22 years. Now, the National Park Service (NPS) Service and DNC are in a legal battle over the names of the historic buildings. The NPS changed the names of the Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village, and Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, because of the dispute.

In 1993, DNC won the concession bid for Yosemite National Park, promising 10% of gross profits to the NPS. The previous concessionaire, the Curry Company, reportedly gave less than 1%. At the time, the NPS required DNC to buy the assets of the Curry Company. DNC bought the physical structures of the Curry Company and turned them over to the NPS. The park service also required DNC to buy the Curry Company’s trademarked names.

In 2002, DNC registered more trademarks, including “Yosemite National Park.” The NPS asserts that they did not consent to this. In a January 14 press release, DNC countered, “It is common practice for concessionaires to use trademarks at federal locations. This is done to safeguard the treasured names, words, and symbols from improper use by entities not under contract with the government. The NPS is well aware of this, having required DNC to purchase trademarks from the previous concessionaire in 1993.”

In July 2014, the $2-billion-dollar contract came up for bid again. The original 15-year DNC/NPS contract had expired in 2008, but was extended another 8 years. As per the original 1993 contract, DNC turned over the buildings and structures to the NPS. The intellectual property and trademarked names remained DNC’s. During the bidding process the NPS went back and forth regarding the trademarks. At times they said the new concessionaire would need to buy them. Other times they said the new concessionaire would not. Two independent appraisals evaluated the intellectual property and trademark names at $51 million, which exceeds the NPS’s evaluation of $3.5 million.

In early January, Scott Gediman the NPS assistant superintendent for public and legislative affairs, told USA Today, “We feel Half Dome and El Capitan and the Ahwahnee Hotel (and other trademarked names at Yosemite) are part of the national park’s fabric. We feel those names are inextricably linked with Yosemite … and ultimately belong to the American people.”

The sentiment didn’t stop the National Park Service from changing them. A week later, the NPS informed DNC and Aramark that purchase of the trademarked names was not required. The NPS offered different names instead. The Ahwahnee Hotel became the Majestic Hotel, Curry Village became Half Dome Village, and Yosemite Lodge at the Falls became Yosemite Lodge.

“While it is unfortunate that we must take this action, changing the names of these facilities will help us provide seamless service to the American public during the transition to the new concessioner,” said park superintendent Don Neubacher.

On February 26, DNC sent a letter to Aramark President Bruce Fears offering the trademarked names for immediate use. DNC stipulated that “the amount of compensation, if any, to which Delaware North is entitled from the National Parks Service and/or Aramark for that property would be determined in due course.” Aramark refused the offer. Aramark believes DNC used the trademarks as leverage to obtain more money.

“In light of Aramark’s refusal to accept the trademarks, DNC is willing to transfer the trademarks directly to the NPS, so long as DNC’s right to continue to seek fair value for its property is not diminished.” DNC’s Executive Vice President/CEO Rick Abramson wrote to National Park Service CFO Lena McDowall. “We do not perceive any reason for NPS to decline this offer, especially in light of the fact that NPS intends to become the owner of these trademarks eventually, pursuant to the provision in Aramark’s contract requiring the transfer of any Yosemite-related trademarks to the NPS. Nonetheless, if the NPS is for some reason unwilling to take ownership of the trademarks in a direct transfer from DNC, DNC would be willing to place the trademarks in escrow under the control of the NPS until the respective rights and obligations of DNC, the NPS, and Aramark resolved through litigation or otherwise.”

The NPS refused the names to avoid weakening their legal case. They also filed a petition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to void the existing trademarks.

“These names were trademarked without our approval, and this petition asks the trademark office to cancel them,” Gediman said. If the Patent and Trademark Office approves the petition, the names will be restored immediately.

Public opinion supports the historic names. However, there is a common misinterpretation about who changed them. Most media coverage ignores the contract agreement between the NPS and DNC, and the fact that it was the NPS who changed the names. To a large extent, the case is being tried in the public court.

“Concessionaires and other partners are critical to the park service and have a real stake in its mission,” wrote Access Fund Director Brady Robinson in the New York Times. “But if Delaware North Corporations’ claim stands, it will help set a precedent that private companies can financially benefit from trademarking noted American place names.”

The trademark dispute affects more than Yosemite. Xanterra, the third player in the national concessions market, runs some of the services in Grand Canyon National Park. The company trademarked the names of the park hotels, including Bright Angel and Phantom Ranch. The NPS and Xanterra are in a similar legal dispute. The Yosemite outcome will set a precedent for the Grand Canyon decision.

In December 2014, Congress amended the US Code allowing the NPS to “retain the name historically associated with the building or structure” regardless of any trademark. This amendment will prevent future disputes but has no effect on the current battle.

A make-shift “Half Dome Village” banner covers the hundred-year-old Curry Village sign. The Ahwahnee sign is still missing. The names may revert to their historic versions. The new names could remain. In the fight between government ineptness and corporate greed, the public has lost.  

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