Yosemite Sham: Trademark Trolls Try to Tap Taxpayers

English: Picture of the Ahwahnee Hotel. I took...
The Ahwahnee Hotel. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Hell hath no fury like a former business partner scorned. The Associated Press reports that  a company called Delaware North, which ran Yosemite National Park’s hotels and restaurants for two decades under contract with the US National Park Service, wants a $51 million payoff after losing those concessions to a higher bidder.

Why the payoff? Delaware North claims that it owns the names of long-existing park attractions which it did not start, does not own, and only temporarily operated. The Ahwahnee Hotel. Curry Village. Oh, yes, and “Yosemite National Park.”

In response to a suit filed by Delaware North, the Park Service is temporarily changing some names (of the hotel and the “village,” but not of the park) while dickering over how much it’s willing to pay — it values the names, according to court documents, at $3.5 million.

Apparently trademark trolling is Delaware North’s big new revenue center. The company also runs concessions at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center and has filed a trademark application on the name “Space Shuttle Atlantis.” No, I’m not kidding. The cost to taxpayers of building and and operating the space shuttle fleet breaks down to around $40 billion per shuttle, but Delaware North thinks it owns the name because it makes money running soda stands and gift shops that riff on the theme.

But this kind of obvious abuse isn’t the real problem. It’s just a high-profile instance of the problem. The problem is the screwed up concept of “intellectual property” itself.

Yes, it’s clearly and obviously wrong to try to patent rounded corners on devices (as Apple did) or collect royalties on century-old characters (Sherlock Holmes) or tunes (“Happy Birthday”) that have long since become organic parts of their surrounding cultures. But the less clear  and obvious cases are wrong too.

I’m no artist, but I can draw a “swoosh.” I’m no cobbler, but I could probably make a shoe. If I put that “swoosh” on that shoe, Nike will have me in court so fast my head will spin. And heaven help me if I draw a cartoon featuring a particular mouse outline. Why? Because Nike, Disney and other “intellectual property” monopolists have bribed governments to pretend that shapes can be owned.

Delaware North isn’t rightly entitled to an “intellectual property” payday. Neither are  other “intellectual property” scammers. But they’ll probably get over. “Owning” a copyright, patent or trademark? Valuable. Owning that claim’s political enforcers? Priceless.

Thomas L. Knapp is director and senior news analyst at the William Lloyd Garrison Center for Libertarian Advocacy Journalism (thegarrisoncenter.org). He lives and works in north central Florida.


  • JdL

    I’m no artist, but I can draw a “swoosh.” I’m no cobbler, but I could probably make a shoe. If I put that “swoosh” on that shoe, Nike will have me in court so fast my head will spin.

    If your swoosh looks enough like Nike’s that it would lead buyers to think you’re selling Nike shoes, then yes. If not, you should certainly be free to use any symbol you like.

    You’re not, I hope, against the use of trademarks to distinguish one company, with its reputation and potentially guarantees, from another company? Most IP haters stop short of that, but from your column I’m not sure.

    As for the Yosemite names, if in fact Delaware North secured rights to those names in its contract with the government, then it is morally and legally bound to its stockholders to insist on a fair price to cede those names back. It’s idiots in the government who are (if this is correct) responsible for granting rights to those names to Delaware North.

    One thing that this issue is NOT is an indictment of IP in general, your insinuations to the contrary notwithstanding.

    • JdL,

      If my swoosh is intended to convince customers that I’m selling shoes made by Nike when I’m not, then what I’m guilty of is an attempt to defraud my customers, not theft of any “property” from Nike.

      I can’t see how Delaware North would have any obligation to its stockholders to pursue payment for things it does not and cannot own. Like a company that gets caught holding 100 stolen large screen TVs, its obligation to its stockholders was to not buy stolen property — or fake property — in the first place.

      At op-ed length, it’s not really possible to “indict” IP per se. Rather I was just giving one example of the many ways in which IP is provably complete bullshit, while just offering the larger indictment in capsule form.

      • lagoona

        But – it can be argued that Nike and its swoosh have created value and an expected level of quality, research, blahblahblah that you are taking advantage of by putting a swoosh on a shoe. You are both defrauding a consumer AND taking profit away from the creator of the brand by pretending your swoosh is authentic and part of the good name Nike has built. I’m not saying IP should not have its limits, and this case with Delaware North makes me mad, too, but in this piece you wandered into territory that is murky and that didn’t help you build your case.

        Delete the paragraph that beings with “I’m no artist” and I’m right there with you.

        • “in this piece you wandered into territory that is murky and that didn’t help you build your case.”

          Well, there are two possible explanations for that.

          One is that I’m intellectually lazy and didn’t want to do the work of building the case. I don’t think that’s true, but I’m not the best person to judge my own work, am I?

          The other is that when writing to op-ed length of 400-500 words (and I strongly prefer 400), there’s a point at which it becomes less about building a fully reasoned argument and more about baiting the hook of argument with just a tiny piece of the argument’s guts, in hopes of reeling in people who will find that little piece irresistible.

          Obviously I tend toward going with the second reason, but that could just be self-serving blindness on my part.

        • Neal Reynolds

          But — As Knapp indicated in his comment above (and I’ve long maintained as well), it comes down to FRAUD. Not only with patents, but copyrights as well. That is, if I claim I wrote a book that I didn’t, that is fraud. Or if my make my shoe design so close to Nike’s that the average customer would be fooled.

          But simply putting a “swoosh” is not enough.

          Yes, there may be some gray areas, but the overall point is that we’d be a lot better off without all these IP laws, which have just resulted in tremendous money being taken from working people and given to lawyers and others.

    • lagoona

      I agree, JdL.

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