The Battle Over Yosemite Names Is Bigger Than You Think

The battle over Yosemite Park's names isn't just about the famous Ahwahnee Hotel. Yes, it and the names of four other historic properties are part of the park's history. The Ahwahanee was named in 1927 and the Wawona Hotel in 1879. But the issue is really corporate control of public goods.

Delaware North, the park's concessionaire since 1993, has sued the National Park Service demanding $51 million dollars for the names of the park-related trademarks. Last year, Delaware North lost the contract to its competitor Aramark and wants to be paid for the names. The company had trademarked the names without informing the Park Service. They even trademarked the name 'Yosemite National Park.'

The lawsuit exposes a fundamental debate about public goods. What are they, who owns them, who has the power to decide their fate, and how they should be managed. Names of the places we hold in common--parks, public buildings, and even sports stadiums--are part of what makes a society and shouldn't be controlled by private interests.

The roots of the conflict started because the Park Service, when it signed the contract with Delaware North, failed to recognize the fundamental public nature of the names. They negotiated a bad deal that didn't clearly state that the names were not included in the original deal with the company. They didn't think it was important, or they couldn't imagine that a private concessionaire would trademark the names and claim ownership. That's exactly what Delaware North did.

That too, is a failure in their original deal. They should have prohibited the trademarking or at least required notice before the fact of any action the concessionaire planned to take that could impact the public status of the park.

That's the fundamental problem when we ask a private company to manage public goods. Anticipating the unforeseen is almost impossible and full of risk. The public agencies that write, negotiate, and sign contracts have to have smart and tough staff who can stare down armies of company lawyers. This staff must understand that the contractor's aim is to generate profits for their owners and shareholders. And there needs to be enough staff to monitor those contracts and contractors all of the time.

The battle of Yosemite's names isn't an isolated case. Similar disputes have happened at Hot Springs National Park in Arkansas, the Grand Canyon, and the Space Shuttle Atlantis.

We should start by getting clear about the meaning of the word 'public.' We need to change our trademark laws to codify a basic principle. The Los Angeles Times editorial board got it right:

"The principle here is clear. Trademarks over the names and other intrinsic features of iconic destinations such as The Ahwahnee should benefit the owners of those destinations -- the taxpayers."