Heritage of Trademark: The Legal Battle Over Ownership of 'Pride'
A lawsuit filed in New York City by the organization that runs the Pride March and attendant events has people asking: "Who owns 'pride'?" The answer could have ramifications far west of the Hudson, to every city that has an official organization running its Pride celebration.
It's important to every LGBT American not only because of the size and scope of New York's Pride, but also because of New York's unique position as the fountainhead of the modern gay rights movement and the first city to celebrate Pride. In 1970, the year after the Stonewall Riots, a group of 2,000 people risked their jobs and relationships with family and friends when they stepped off the curb to walk up Sixth Avenue to Central Park, where they held a spontaneous rally.
New York's Pride has always taken place on the last Sunday in June. It has grown to include more than 600,000 marchers, and many more cheering them on from the sidelines. It has become a major tourism magnet: in 1994, the Gay Games and Pride brought in an estimated 1 million people.
It's not surprising that all of those visitors have attracted promoters - and therein lies the lawsuit. Heritage of Pride acted against a group of promoters operating under the banners of Matinee USA and Voss USA to prevent them from using the words "NYC Pride" in their advertising and promotional materials. As reported on EDGE, Judge Colleen McMahon of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York issued a preliminary injunction.
"Although NYC Pride had hoped to resolve this matter without having to resort to legal action, we are grateful to the Court for its decision and pleased that we have been able to protect the NYC Pride trademarks during the key Pride Week period," said Chris Frederick, managing director of NYC Pride since 1984.
The current controversy began when Heritage of Pride (HOP) filed a lawsuit against a group of party promoters a few weeks before Pride events began. Heritage of Pride, a charitable organization, is the successor organization to the Christopher Street Liberation Day Committee, which organized the first Pride Marches before financial mismanagement threatened NYC's Pride events.
HOP has itself become one of the major producers of circuit-type parties during Pride Weekend. For 27 years, HOP's Dance on the Pier has taken over one of the city-owned piers jutting into the Hudson River on the West Side of Manhattan. Dance on the Pier begins while the Pride marchers are still wending their way through the streets of New York and ends around 11 p.m. with a spectacular fireworks display from a barge anchored in the river, after a performance by a major dance diva that in the past has included Whitney Houston, Deborah Cox, Kristine W, Jennifer Lopez, Janet Jackson and Cher. In 2013, Lady Gaga gave in impromptu speech and performance as part of Friday night's free-to-the-public rally held on the same pier.
Several thousand people (mostly men) buy tickets for Dance on the Pier at prices that can top $100 for VIP. HOP piggybacks its light and sound system for a much smaller woman's party the night before. For HOP, Dance on the Pier has become a major source of funding for the march, a huge rally on the Hudson River and a street fair (to which vendors pay a fee as well), among other events.
In 2011, HOP added another party to the weekend - a VIP Rooftop Party. In 2013, it produced a rooftop pool party. This year, HOP partnered with Los Angeles-based DJ and producer Brett Henrichsen's Masterbeat organization, which is co-producing the WE Party at NYC's cavernous Hammerstein Ballroom the night before the march.
There have been other giant Saturday night parties before, most notably the late Peter Rauhofer's Work parties at Roseland Ballroom. What really rankles event producer Brandon Voss is that, in his eyes, Chris Frederick, the head of HOP, has tried to monopolize Pride - and a generous salary besides. HOP trademarked "NYC Pride" and "New York City Pride" earlier this year, but Voss objects more to what he sees as branding a historic annual event.
"It's akin to saying, 'I own St. Patrick's Day,'" Voss told EDGE. "We never said 'Heritage of Pride.' My lawyer is so outraged, he's taking it pro bono." Voss claims that Frederick initially came to him back in December and told him, "I'm looking to expand to a Saturday night event."
"We had worked together before," Voss said. "I said, 'OK, sure.'" Voss told EDGE he ran the numbers and came back to Frederick earlier this year to tell him he needed more time to see how much the sponsorship cost would affect his bottom line. "He came back a week or two later and told me, 'I'm going with Masterbeat.' He has this dream of a weekend pass, so we're competing with him." Voss also maintains that HOP waited until a few weeks before Pride to file the injunction.
The case has attracted attention beyond the gay community. Ronald Coleman, general counsel of the Media Bloggers Association, for example, blogged about the decision. If, as Voss promises, his lawyer agrees to argue the case up the chain of courts, it could become a landmark decision in trademark litigation.
HOP is a member of InterPride, an organization that represents Pride celebrations in major cities here and abroad. InterPride did not respond to a request for comment. Frederick himself has countered that HOP is not trying to own "Pride" but protect HOP from infringement and allowing NYC Pride to become associated with events that may tarnish its reputation. HOP argued in court that Matinee was promoting with "highly sexualized imagery" and was associating with a performer who allegedly made a homophobic remark to blogger Perez Hilton.
But the crux of its argument is that it is protecting one of its most valuable assets: its ability to offer paid sponsorships. HOP believes that Voss and company, for example, are getting a free ride by using similar lettering to HOP events.
There's no question that running the gigantic Pride March in a city as large, complicated and full of bureaucratic red tape as New York is an expensive undertaking. HOP has become a year-round organization employing a full staff and offices in Greenwich Village a few blocks down Christopher Street from the original Stonewall Inn.
Leaving aside Voss's contention that HOP has become a self-sustaining organization, the lawsuit brings up the thorny question of sponsoring Prides. Many LGBT activists have been angered by corporate sponsorships, which they see as making Gay Pride into a mass marketing opportunity, with hot boys packed into tight briefs dancing on corporate floats replacing grassroots activism. One group in New York even sponsored a briefly lived "Gay Shame Day."
Pride celebrations around the country have long been lightening rods for the left and right. Many, including some gay men, believe that men in thongs and leather, drag queens in highly outrageous outfits and other in-your-face marchers are not only presenting fodder for the religious right but are anachronisms when lesbians serve openly in the military and gay men are getting married in 19 states and the District of Columbia.
For Voss, the question is whether any organization can claim to trademark an event. "I definitely believe it's a landmark case," he told EDGE. "This is the birthplace of the gay rights movement. If this is successful, every organization in every city will want to own Pride."
A precedent should be noted. The NFL, for example, owns the trademark to "Superbowl" (or, alternately, "Super Bowl"); not only that, but it has protected the franchise by trademarking at least seven other designations, such as "Super Sunday" and "Pro Bowl." In a well-publicized controversy during this year's Super Bowl, the NFL actually barred East Rutherford, N.J., the town where the stadium for the game is located, from using the term "Superbowl."
Back in 2012, Coleman called out Consumer Reports for "suggesting that non-profit organizations are per se entitled to assert" that they own a name like "Superbowl." Coleman elsewhere has noted that bars hosting "Superbowl" events always have backed down after a cease-and-desist letter from the NFL.
Whether HOP can do the same with Pride may ultimately even end up becoming a landmark court case with consequences reaching far beyond dance parties.