Can Historical Names be Trademarked?

A trademark is used to identify and distinguish one company’s goods or services from another’s.  Trademarks can be words, combinations of words, signs, symbols, or designs. A trademark used over time creates brand equity by leading customers to associate quality and value with a particular business’s products. A company’s trademarks are therefore valuable intellectual property. Yet certain things cannot be trademarked – names, for instance, as well as terms that are too generic or too geographically descriptive. Yet a battle raging now for the names of some of Yosemite National Park’s most well-known and well-loved hotels and landmarks raises the question whether a private company can trademark historical names in use for over a hundred years.

The Trademark Lawsuit

According to stories reported by the San Francisco Chronicle and the Associated Press, the Delaware North company, which ran Yosemite’s lodges, hotels, campgrounds, and other tourist amenities for twenty-three years is now claiming that the names of these facilities became its intellectual property during its tenure as the park’s concessionaire. Unbeknownst to the National Parks Service, Delaware North has applied for trademarks on those names.  

After Delaware North lost its bid to continue running Yosemite’s amenities last year, the company filed a lawsuit alleging that it owns the rights to the names of those properties, and demanding $51 million from the new concessionaire, Aramark, for their use. Delaware North asserts that when it took over the park’s concessions in 1993, its contract with the Parks Service required it to buy all the assets of the previous concessionaire, which had owned the properties.  According to the lawsuit, Delaware North alleges it transferred all the physical assets to the Parks Service, but retained the intellectual property it acquired.

Similar disputes have arisen at Arkansas’s Hot Springs National Park and at the Grand Canyon in Arizona.  Delaware North, which also runs the concession service at Kennedy Space Center, has also applied to trademark the name “Space Shuttle Atlantis.”

Changes to Yosemite’s Traditional Names

The Parks Service disputes Delaware North’s ownership claim but has decided to change the name of many of its facilities to keep things running smoothly for park guests. Thus, the famous Ahwahnee Hotel will become the Majestic Yosemite Hotel, while the well-known Curry Village Campsite will switch to Half Dome Village. Other name changes include:

  • Yosemite Lodge at the Falls, which will become Yosemite Valley Lodge;
  • The Wawona Hotel, which will become Big Trees Lodge; and
  • The Badger Pass Ski Area, which will become the Yosemite Ski and Snowboard Area.

Delaware North also lays claim to the name Yosemite National Park itself, but the Parks Service has no plans to change that one. Some of the names at issue originated more than 100 years ago, and members of the public are outraged at the need for the changes.

The decision in the lawsuit will likely turn on two ultimate issues:

  • The details of the original contract between the Parks Service and Delaware North; and
  • Whether the fact that names are of historical origin precludes trademark registration.

Consult a California Trademark Attorney

If you have questions or concerns about your own company’s intellectual property, contact the skilled intellectual property attorneys of The De Cardenas Law Group for a consultation. With offices in Los Angeles and San Francisco, The De Cardenas Law Group has the experience and resources to meet all your legal needs.