To generations of Americans, Yosemite National Park and its landmarks have symbolized the core democratic ideals of the United States—spaces truly owned by the people and open to all. For those who created our national parks, “[t]he purpose of preserving this land was to cultivate a kind of rare experience [they] saw as endangered by a social world that turned every thing, moment, and human being to profit.” It is striking, then, that Yosemite, one of the nation’s first national parks, has become the focus of a battle over whether our landmarks and their names belong to us all or to a select few. In 2016, several Yosemite National Park landmarks were renamed due to an ongoing trademark dispute between a concessions company and the National Park Service (NPS). At the end of its contract with the park, the departing concessions company demanded compensation for the trademarks to the words “The Ahwahnee,” “Wawona,” “Badger Pass,” “Curry Village,” and perhaps most shockingly, “Yosemite National Park” itself. During its contractual relationship with the NPS—and apparently unbeknownst to NPS administrators—the concessions company filed for and received trademarks for use of these landmark names in hospitality and merchandising contexts.
Allowing short-term concessionaires to trademark the names of publicly owned and culturally treasured assets implicates key trademark principles in several ways. The oft-recited aims of trademark law are providing information to the consumer, promoting competition, and avoiding dilution of brands by protecting accrued goodwill. Allowing short-term concessionaires to register national park landmark names conflicts with each of these aims, as this Note explains. A limited contractual relationship fits poorly with the enduring cultural value of well-known landmarks and raises complex questions about business operations and intellectual property in the national park context. This Note contends that principles of trademark law and policy are undermined if federal contractors can establish long term proprietary rights over national park landmark names. To provide a comprehensive picture of the Yosemite case, Part I will further explore the facts surrounding the trademarks and landmarks in question, as well as the contractual relationship between DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc. (DNCY) and the NPS. Part II considers the NPS’s claims for cancellation of the Yosemite-linked trademarks under existing U.S. trademark law. Part III argues that concessionaire registrations are inconsistent with the baseline goals of trademark law. Finally, Part IV suggests that legislation, similar to a statute recently enacted in California, represents a possible solution to the issues surrounding private trademarking of public landmark names. This Note asserts that the purposes of trademark law support taking the names of national parks and landmarks off the bargaining table and out of would-be profiteers’ reach, and that providing our national park landmark names with statutory protection from commercial interests fits perfectly within the American tradition of preserving the parks themselves.
Megan Elaine Ault,
This Name is Your Name: Public Landmarks, Private Trademarks, and Our National Parks,
67 Duke Law Journal
Available at: https://scholarship.law.duke.edu/dlj/vol67/iss1/3