While intellectual property defines plays a role in the everyday behavior of just about everyone on the planet, most of us are blissfully unaware of just how powerful intellectual properties such as trademarks and copyrights are, and just how far they extend. For instance, it was only last year that the song “Happy Birthday” lost its copyright, thanks to a court case filed by a filmmaker who’d had to pay up to use it in her documentary.

Recently, the All Things Legal team described another case that is surprising (and appalling) many nature aficionados in California and across the country…

Believe it or not, “Yosemite National Park” is a trademarked name. And the park just lost that trademark, along with many others.

A bit of back story: Back in 1993, Yosemite National Park put the concession rights for the park up for bid. These concession rights included the rights to operate hotels, run concession stands, sell souvenirs, and so on. A hospitality company called Delaware North ended up winning the contact, and became the official concessionaire of the park.

The contract that Delaware North signed with Yosemite stipulated that the company had to purchase a number of the park’s assets, including the naming rights for many of the properties in Yosemite, including Curry Village, Yosemite Lodge, Badger Pass, and the Ahwahnee Hotel, as well as—unbelievably—the merchandising rights for the name of the park itself, Yosemite National Park.

In 2014, the park’s concession rights were put back up for bid, and Delaware North lost out to Aramark. The terms of the original contract stated that if Delaware North ever lost concession rights, the new concessionaire would have to pay fair market value for the assets it had previously purchased.

We’ll let Craig Ashton take it from here: “…In the contract it said that if [Delaware North] lost their concession… to somebody else, that they would get to be paid back for intellectual property… and part of that is the trademarking of the Ahwahnee Lodge, Curry Village, Yosemite Lodge, and even Yosemite National Park. So, essentially now there is a battle between this concessionaire, saying that they own the trademark to all of those names—but… Yosemite’s a federal park, right? It’s part of the federal government, so we all own it together as taxpayers—so somehow, we were able, through the idiocy of those who run the federal government in our names, sold the rights to Ahwahnee, Yosemite, Badger Pass, to a concessionaire that was making money off of it…”

Tim Hodson stepped in to finish Craig’s sentence: “And now they have to pay them back for it.”

The biggest issue is that Yosemite and Delaware North disagree about the value of the trademarks, and thus, the amount that Yosemite would have to pay to get them back. Yosemite alleges that the trademarks are worth less than $2 million, while Delaware North estimates the value of the trademarks at $44 million. This has prompted a lawsuit which is still pending.

Delaware North has offered to allow Aramark to use the trademarks for free until the suit is resolved, but Yosemite has preemptively chosen to rename the various affected landmarks within the park. The park announced in January that the following name changes would take effect:

  • Yosemite Lodge would become Yosemite Valley Lodge
  • The Ahwahnee Hotel would become The Majestic Yosemite Hotel
  • Curry Village would become Half Dome Village
  • Wawona Hotel would become Big Trees Lodge
  • Badger Pass Ski Area would become Yosemite Ski & Snowboard Area
  • Additionally, merchandise featuring the name of the park has been removed, in some cases being replaced with alternative souvenirs reading simply Yosemite.

Ultimately, it may come to pass that by virtue of the court case or a settlement down the road, that these changes are reversed and the many familiar place names are restored. But regardless of the outcome, this incident serves as a reminder of the fact that many seemingly natural or historical names and concepts are in fact owned in one respect or another, and are impacted by business agreements and legal disputes.