Yosemite Park Changes Iconic Location Names to Avoid Intellectual Property Lawsuit

The National Park Service has caused controversy by announcing its intention to change the names of several historic locations across Yosemite National Park to avoid the threat of a trademark lawsuit by the outgoing concessions provider.  The decision has been met with pointed criticism by Yosemite Park enthusiasts and historic preservation societies alike, but the outcome is unlikely to change without intervention from Congress.

Yosemite Park Announces Site Name Changes

In mid-January the National Park Service (NPS) issued an announcement that several iconic locations throughout Yosemite would undergo name changes effective March 1st, 2016.  According to the announcement:

  • Yosemite Lodge at the Falls to become: Yosemite Valley Lodge
  • The Ahwahnee to become: The Majestic Yosemite Hotel
  • Curry Village to become: Half Dome Village
  • Wawona Hotel to become: Big Trees Lodge
  • Badger Pass Ski Area to become: Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area

For many visitors and regular patrons of Yosemite Park the name changes represent a sad end of an era, but the NPS claims it was forced to take action in order to avoid the possibility of a multi-million dollar intellectual property lawsuit threatened by outgoing park concessionaire Delaware North Corp (DNC).  DNC has operated all concessions at Yosemite Park since the early 1990’s and alleges that it is owed payment of $51 million for all trademarks and other intellectual property it has accumulated during its tenure.

Yosemite Park Concessionaire Threatens Intellectual Property Lawsuit

In 2014 the NPS elected to re-bid the concessions contract for Yosemite Park which ultimately resulted in the termination of a long-standing agreement with DNC in favor of Yosemite Hospitality, LLC, which is a subsidiary of Aramark.  The new agreement with Aramark is worth close to $2 billion over a 15-year duration.  The decision concluded a 22-year relationship with DNC which benefited both parties with DNC providing satisfactory concession and clean-up services to the park in exchange for more than $1 billion in revenue during the life of the agreement.  After the shift in concessionaires was announced, DNC alleged that the incoming company would need to pay them roughly $100 million for its interests in Yosemite, $51 million of which is for trademarks protected under intellectual property law

Throughout the term of its service in Yosemite Park, DNC has been gradually trademarking images and names associated with the popular locations across the park where the company provided hospitality and clean-up services.  Reports from the NPS indicate DNC trademarked twenty-eight Yosemite names without express contractual authorization as the original agreement does not include any mention of trademark or intellectual property rights being endowed the concessionaire.  Every name trademarked by DNC during this period pre-dated the company’s involvement which began in 1993, and the NPS claims it did not receive proper notice of the company’s trademarking activities.

Although DNC was not the first to privatize a brand image associated with Yosemite National Park – a previous hospitality provider broke ground on trademarking Park images in the mid-80’s – the scope of the company’s trademark activities came as an unwelcome surprise to NPS officials.  The NPS valued DNC’s intellectual property holdings at a far lower sum of $3.5 million, but ultimately backed out of the fight when the company filed a lawsuit alleging its previous contract entitled them to a payment of $51 million for acquired intellectual property rights associated with the use of location names presented on products, brochures, and websites.

Yosemite Park Intellectual Property Dispute Highlights Corporate Influence in National Parks

The immediate outrage of the dispute between the NPS and DNC focuses on the upcoming name change for beloved locations throughout Yosemite Park, but the issue underscores a growing corporate influence in national parks across America.  With privatized trademark registration of national park locations and brands, the private companies which provide concessions or other hospitality services gain a foothold in the multi-million dollar park tourism industry.  Yosemite alone generates $535 million per year, and other national parks across the country are similarly profitable enterprises not only to state and federal government, but to the private companies which service them.

In addition to its trademarks of Yosemite locations, DNC has intellectual property ownership of other nationally protected historic sites including the Space Shuttle Atlantis and Camp Kennedy Space Center.  Competing hospitality companies similarly own naming rights to iconic sites across the American National Park landscape, notably including Grand Canyon Park Lodges.  Aramark, ready to take over hospitality services in Yosemite, actually initiated a trademark request for the name Yosemite National Park late last year.  Although the company has since abandoned pursuit of the trademark, there is nothing stopping Aramark from re-filing for the trademark once the public heat caused by DNC’s lawsuit has died down.

Without Congressional intervention preserving historic National Park names and brands the increasingly privatized ownership of treasured images will only result in more disputes like the one between DNC and NPS, likely leading to more generic re-branding initiatives designed to avoid intellectual property litigation.

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