Trademark Standoff in Yosemite National Park

Just mentioning Yosemite National Park will conjure up many a spectacular mental image. Towering granite cliffs emerging from a verdant valley. Trees that make you wonder how something living can possibly be that big and that old. Waterfalls that spring forth from the rock like freefalling fire. Trademark disputes over intellectual property valuation.

Wait, what?

Since 2014, the National Park Service has been embroiled in a legal battle with Delaware North, a concessionaire that, until recently, operated hotels, restaurants and recreation facilities within Yosemite National Park. As part of the newly negotiated facility operations contract, the winning bidder – Yosemite Hospitality LLC – has to pay Delaware North, which had been the concessionaire since 1993, fair market value for its assets, including trademarks it had claimed on a number of buildings and landmarks within the park.

This would have been all very well and fine, but the Park Service appraised the concessionaire’s intangible property – which included 32 trademarks, domain names, and other assets – at $3.5 million, while Delaware North countered with a figure of $51.2 million.

Without a detailed list of all intangible property or an agreed upon method of determining its fair value, both the Federal Government and Delaware North have found themselves in a situation in which neither looks good.

So how did they get here?

Long story short: Delaware North bought assets and assumed liabilities that neither they nor the Park Service clearly understood – particularly whether the value of a trademark used within a national park setting is the product of, thereby intrinsically tied to, the park.

When Delaware North became concessionaire in 1993, it did so by acquiring stock of Curry Company, which had run the park’s various facilities in one form or another since 1899, and included all tangible and intangible assets acquired during its 90+ year run.

So facilities like The Ahwanee Hotel, Wawona Hotel and Curry Village, which had become iconic park landmarks in their own right, became ground zero for a battle centered around the Park Service’s assertion that it’s not the trademark that generates value (property of Delaware North), but the park in which it operates (property of the Federal Government). Hence the discrepancy in valuations.

What now?

To its credit, Delaware North has offered to let the Park Service and new concessionaire use the trademarks in question free of charge until the legal dispute has been resolved.

Meanwhile, the National Parks Service has temporarily renamed several of its high-profile facilities and landmarks within Yosemite. While, yes, the move does make the trademark dispute moot and increases the government’s leverage in settling the case, it does so to the detriment of visitors caught up in a legal imbroglio and vendors who’ve found themselves saddled with unusable preprinted merchandise.

As with most things, the true valuation of the trademarks in question probably lies somewhere in the middle. Unfortunately, neither side may end up as a clear winner. While asserting its intellectual property rights, Delaware North risks looking unreasonable in the court of public opinion. The government – including the National Park Service – ends up looking ineffective at appreciating intellectual property concerns related to its assets.


About Boyle Fredrickson

Established in 1999, Boyle Fredrickson has grown to become Wisconsin’s largest intellectual property law firm. You’ve got ideas, we protect them.

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