National Park Concessionaires

In September 2015, a seemingly innocuous contract dispute was filed in the United States Court of Federal Claims (“CFC”) that could lead to the United States losing the trademark rights to some of its most popular national attractions.1 Though the suit is ostensibly based on failed contract negotiations between private national park concessionaire DNC Parks & Resorts at Yosemite, Inc. (“Delaware North”) and the United States Department of Interior (“National Park Service”), the damages claimed by Delaware North directly implicate whether a private entity should—or even can—own trademark protection for national landmarks like The Ahwahnee Hotel and even Yosemite National Park itself.

The National Park Service regularly administers guest services operations within its national parks through private companies, awarding “concession contracts” to these various entities. Delaware North was selected as Yosemite National Park’s official concessionaire in 1993, and came to operate over 1,500 hotel rooms, 25 food and beverage stands, and nearly 20 retail establishments.2 During its tenure, Delaware North also registered several trademarks for places traditionally associated with Yosemite National Park, including THE AWAHNEE, CURRY VILLAGE, WAWONA, BADGER PASS, and YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK.3

As part of the concession contract renewal process, the National Park Service agreed that any successor concessionaire would be required to pay Delaware North “fair value” for its Yosemite-related property. In the dispute, Delaware North argues this should include at least $44 million in compensation for the Yosemite trademarks. The National Park Service, however, contends the trademarks are likely invalid and, thus, “fair value” is more accurately estimated at $3.5 million. In fact, in response to this lawsuit, the National Park Service filed a Consolidated Petition for Cancellation before the United States Patent and Trademark Office’s Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (“TTAB”) in an attempt to cancel Delaware North’s various Yosemite-related trademarks.4 That TTAB proceeding was suspended, however, because of the action already pending at the CFC. Accordingly, the court will likely be forced to wrestle with whether Delaware North’s trademarks are valid as the civil action seeks to determine if Delaware North was properly compensated though the parties vehemently dispute the value of the relevant intellectual property.

Of note, another concessionaire giant, Xanterra, filed a series of similar trademark applications in October and November 2014, for landmarks related to Grand Canyon National Park—EL TOVAR, HERMITS REST, LOOKOUT STUDIO, BRIGHT ANGEL LODGE, and PHANTOM RANCH.5 These applications came during a similar contract dispute with the National Park Service, though each was expressly abandoned in March 2015 after Xanterra was awarded a temporary, one-year contract.

Arguments for Cancellation

As part of the cancellation analysis, it is important to remember a trademark is entitled to protection only where it is functions as “a source identifier.”6 Through this lens, the U.S. Government argues that Delaware North’s trademarks should be cancelled because they falsely suggest a connection to the National Park Service. Delaware North counters that some of these marks have been in use by Yosemite’s concessionaires for nearly 100 years, with The Ahwahnee Hotel, for example, having been established by Delaware North’s predecessor in 1927. The PTO Examiner agreed with the National Park Service, initially, denying Delaware North’s original application for YOSEMITE NATIONAL PARK because of its false suggestion of a connection and descriptiveness.7 That office action was traversed, however, when Delaware North submitted a heavily redacted version of its 1993 concessionaire contract, allegedly establishing the necessary connection, and a declaration of acquired distinctiveness.

Legislative Efforts

In response to this high profile case, legislatures have taken to banning the registration of trademarks related to popular outdoor destinations. At the federal level, for example, Congress recently enacted a statute intended to prevent similar disputes.8 54 U.S.C. § 302106 prevents the trademark registration of a name historically associated with “buildings and structures on or eligible for inclusion on the National Register (either individually or as part of a historic district), or designated as an individual landmark or as a contributing building in a historic district by a unit of State or local government.” This language would have precluded almost all of Delaware North’s registrations and may prohibit any future attempt to register Xanterra’s presently-abandoned applications.

At the state level, California (home to the most national parks) recently adopted a similar bill that prohibits state park concessionaires from registering or obtaining any ownership interests in “the name or names associated with a state park venue.”9

Overall, these statutory proscriptions appear to embody the notion that parks—national, state, and regional—are held in the public trust, for all people, and thus, their associated property (including trademarks) should be part of that trust, too.10

Moving Forward

The future of this dispute is unclear. In its Opposition to suspend the TTAB proceeding, the National Park Service argues that Delaware North’s CFC complaint intentionally avoids mentioning issues of trademark validity or infringement, though such issues are arguably implicated by Delaware North’s claim for damages. Thus, the Government contends, these issues may not even be addressed.

The National Park Service has also argued the CFC is an inappropriate venue for the trademark dispute because it does not have jurisdiction to either (a) hear Lanham Act claims, or (b) cancel trademark registrations.11 The National Park Service specifically noted cases in which the CFC, itself, proclaimed “we have no jurisdiction over claims for trademark infringement”12 and “this court does not have jurisdiction over plaintiff’s claim for [trademark] cancellation.”13 Delaware North responded to these claims by asserting the CFC has jurisdiction by virtue of its “authority to decide incidental legal issues that arise in the course of deciding a claim within its Tucker Act jurisdiction, even if those issues would be outside the Court’s jurisdiction if asserted as standalone claims.”14 Thus, the issues of trademark validity and infringement may or may not be appropriately raised before the CFC.

Alternatively, the parties may simply come to a settlement, similar to that seen in the National Park Service’s dispute with Xanterra, though the Yosemite contract-at-issue has already been awarded to a different concessionaire. We await further developments.