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Trademark law expert weighs in on Delaware North Yosemite dispute

I talked to Mark Bartholomew, a University at Buffalo law professor who teaches about trademark law and advertising law, too late for my story in today's Buffalo News on the tiff between Delaware North and the National Park Service over intellectual property at Yosemite National Park in California.

But Bartholomew, who also has studied the history of the national park system in this country, had some interesting thoughts on the high-profile Yosemite dispute that are worth sharing.

Bartholomew said it's easy to see why the case has generated so much interest in California and nationally from people objecting to what they see as a private business staking a claim to part of a national park. He said our network of parks has its origins in an attempt to rein in over-commercialization at Niagara Falls and other sites more than a century ago.

"The reason why this story has gotten traction is because people are kind of upset at the idea of a commercial entity controlling something that's so closely related to these natural wonders," Bartholomew said.

As for the matter at hand, Bartholomew said he's surprised the park service in its original contract didn't license to Delaware North the names, logos and other intangible assets connected to the park instead of selling them outright to the company. Delaware North took over concessions and operations of restaurants and other attractions at the park in 1993, and the company said it was required to purchase that intellectual property from the previous concessionaire as part of its Yosemite contract.

He advised the park service to include a limited license, not ownership, in the new concessions contract that will be approved later this year. Delaware North is expect to bid to keep the Yosemite contract, the most valuable in the national park system.

"My take on that, without being an expert on the value of these things, is that a full transfer to the entity that's going to take over the concessions there is just dumb. That's dumb," Bartholomew said.

The names of several attractions are at the heart of the dispute: Ahwahnee Hotel, Curry Village, Badger Pass, among others. Bartholomew, who has visited Yosemite and previously lived in California, agreed with the park service that the names have special meaning as an important part of the park's heritage. As with many legal disputes, Bartholomew expects this one to be settled once the park service and Delaware North agree on a value of the intellectual property. Delaware North put that value at $51 million, but it is not a final figure.

Corporate trademarks can be quite valuable, the law professor pointed out. Forbes conducts an annual study of the most valuable company brands, and in November ranked Apple at No. 1 with a brand value of $124 billion.

As a side note, I reached out to Bartholomew after striking out with four of the largest law firms in Buffalo. When I contacted them to see if they had an attorney who works in intellectual property law or trademark law, all four took a pass. Two said they couldn't comment because Delaware North is a client. One said Delaware North isn't a client but the firm has clients who are business partners with Delaware North. And the fourth said no one was available to talk to me Thursday, my deadline for Friday's story.

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