Lawsuit disputes festival rights
Ownership of Light City name and logo is challenged by city
Organizers of next year’s Light City festival are forging ahead, despite the shadow cast by a dispute between the city and the duo that developed the idea over who owns the name, logo and other parts of the event, which was designed to showcase the bright side of Baltimore.
The federal lawsuit filed by the city asks the court to declare the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts and Baltimore Festival of the Arts, nonprofits that throw events for the city, the sole owners of the Light City name, logo and other marks.
The suit’s filing in federal court followed months of back and forth between BOPA and Brooke and Justin Allen, a married couple who came up with the idea for the festival and worked on the event this year. The face-off occurred after BOPA opted not to work with What Works Studio, a marketing and creative agency run by the couple, for next year’s festival, attorneys for both sides said.
Both parties said they do not intend their fight to put Light City 2017 at risk. Nevertheless the clash is a dark turn for what was hailed as a unifying event, attracting an estimated 400,000 people for music, panel discussions and art installations during its week-long run this spring.
“It looks to be like a little bit of a blemish and I wish it wasn’t there,” said Tim Scofield, owner and operator of Tim Scofield Studios and co-creator of the large neon peacock, one of the installation highlights this year. “I don’t know what to do about it.”
Bill Gilmore, BOPA’s executive director, said he does not believe the lawsuit will damage the festival. His organization already is working to secure sponsors and other parts of Light City 2017. Gilmore said he expects to announce artists and other parts of the 2017 lineup next month.
The festival, which cost $3.8 million to run, had a $400,000 shortfall this year, a gap that Gilmore said was an anomaly related to the first year of the event. The organization
has projected a budget of about $4.2 million for 2017, when the festival will expand to nine days and plans to make enough money to cover this year’s loss, he said.
“We’re raising the bar,” he said. “In no way is the festival in jeopardy from a program content or fundraising approach.”
Several lead sponsors contacted by The Sun, including BGE, said they remain committed to the event, citing its estimated $33.8 million economic impact. (By comparison, the city sank more than $7 million into preparing for the Grand Prix IndyCar race, which drew about 160,000 people and generated $47 million in economic impact its first year.)
“I would wish that the dispute didn’t exist,” said Robert C. Embry, Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which was one of the earliest supporters of the Light City idea, contributing $250,000 this year. “I hope and I think it probably is a minor distraction.”
The Allens started developing Light City in 2013, adapting the concept from conferences and events held in Austin, Texas, and Australia. They said they created a company, solicited and secured supporters, and established social media accounts and a website before seeking city backing from BOPA in 2014.
BOPA eventually agreed to adopt the idea, hiring What Works to develop a logo, brand identity, website and produce a conference related to the event, LightCityU, according to the lawsuit. The firm received more than $170,000 for the work, the lawsuit says.
The city says the contract specified that the logos, trade names and other marks would be the sole property of BOPA, which as a nonprofit could not agree to share ownership with a for-profit business. But a later contract, concerning the conference part of the festival, suggests the matter remained the subject of discussion, with the Allens retaining the right to negotiate an ownership stake in LightCityU.
In the lawsuit, BOPA says it was dissatisfied with What Works Studio’s work on the conference and eventually took over bookings.
After the festival, the organization also decided to organize the 2017 event without What Works. That prompted the split, as well as the threat of an injunction, said William Alden McDaniel Jr., a partner at Ballard Spahr, who is working on the case pro bono for BOPA.
“Their performance was not good,” he said. “The city decided to part ways with them and they said we own this intellectual property and we’ll shut this down.”
The Allens and attorney Julie Hopkins of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice declined to comment directly on the allegations before filing an official response with the federal court. But in an email to friends shared with The Sun the Allens contend they did not assign intellectual property rights to BOPA.
Brooke Allen said she and her husband were surprised the city moved to litigate and are “extremely proud of the work we did for Light City and the conference at Light City.”
“Beyond our own personal strife and struggle through this, it’s heartbreaking that something with all the best intentions in the world is being shown in this light,” Justin Allen said.
Gilmore said BOPA needs to protect its control of the event.
“We’ve always acknowledged the fact that this was their idea from the beginning and are thankful for that,” Gilmore said.
Intellectual property and trademark attorneys said it seems unlikely that either party in the case would seek to stop the event from occurring under the Light City name as part of the litigation, but it is a possibility.
“Things can change, litigation is fluid,” said Jan Berlage, a partner at Gohn Hankey Stichel & Berlage LLP. “Right now, the city claims to own and operate ‘Light City Baltimore.’ It is not trying to stop the light show. It is just trying to stop the defendants, its former contractors, from engaging in what it alleges is unfair competition.”
It’s not the first time the city has engaged in a trademark fight. In 2013, the city wrangled with ad executive Sande Riesett over the rights to the “Show your soft side” anti-animal abuse campaign. That suit, first brought by Riesett, was settled eventually. Riesett continues to operate the campaign as a nonprofit, according to its website.
Fights over trademarks are not uncommon in advertising, especially if something is successful, but it can hurt business, said Bob Leffler, the owner of the Leffler Agency, which counts the Preakness Stakes among its clients.
“It’s not a good thing to wrangle with a client, ever,” he said. “I just feel bad for everybody concerned because it was good for the city in a tough time.”
George Harman, a past president of the Reisterstown-Owings Mills-Glyndon Coordinating Council who ran for county executive in 2014, noted the demise of Owings Mills Mall is not unique. Malls around the region and across the county have closed or undergone redevelopment.
“It’s really a shame to see the transitioning of all the malls,” he said. But he noted that many, including Hunt Valley, have rebounded.
Harman said there’s room for “middleof-the-road” restaurants and stores such as a Lowe’s or a Dick’s Sporting Goods.
“Mid-range is what I think Reisterstown, Randallstown and Owings Mills are looking for,” he said.
Baltimore Rising, a group that promotes economic development in the region, has opposed a big-box concept at the site. The group is calling on Jones to introduce legislation limiting store size on the property that could eliminate big-box retailers.
The group’s founder, Les Cohen, declined an interview request.
Rival developers see promise at the mall property, but say they worry Kimco’s plan will fall short.
Gibbons, CEO of Greenberg Gibbons, said his company wanted to buy the site, but was rebuffed by Kimco. He thinks the mall property is ripe for a mix of homes, shops and offices, creating a “walkable community” linking to Metro Centre next door.
“It’s very important that whatever happens to the mall is complementary, and we don’t take a step back,” Gibbons said.
Howard Brown, chairman of Owings Mills-based David S. Brown Enterprises, said he also tried to buy the mall property. His company is developing Metro Centre, and built a road connecting his project to the mall site.
Kimco declined to comment on whether Greenberg Gibbons and David S. Brown attempted to buy the mall.
Brown said a big-box, strip center is not what people want, and won’t become the community focal point Owings Mills needs. With the explosion of online shopping, he said, customers aren’t interested in browsing in giant stores. In-person shopping is moving to smaller stores, he said.
Brown said he would rather see the former mall site become a mix of singleand multifamily housing centered around Main Street-type shopping, with a park or pond as a neighborhood amenity.
“The last thing it wants to be is boxes facing boxes,” Brown said. “That’s passe.”
Brown thinks county officials should take a role in nudging Kimco to be creative, possibly with legislation guiding what can be done with the property.
“They have an opportunity now. The mall is gone,” Brown said. “The county has an opportunity to create a walkable, bikeable downtown.” Frederick News-Post as he ran for reelection in 2014.
A spokeswoman for the county sheriff’s office did not respond to requests for comment.
Frederick County’s program is one of many around the country to face criticism and legal challenge.
A Salvadoran woman sued the county under federal civil rights law in 2009. She alleged that county deputies asked her for identification in October 2008 as she ate lunch alone near a pond in Frederick and referred her to authorities for possible deportation. The case is still pending, according to federal court records.
The Los Angeles County sheriff’s office stopped participating in 287(g) last year. The office settled a claim the ACLU filed on behalf of a California man who was detained under the program but is a U.S. citizen. His lawyers said the case amounted to racial profiling.
As Harford County joined the program last week, officials said it should not stir opposition.
“Immigration is a very emotional, controversial subject right now, we all know that — it’s probably the biggest issue facing this country right now,” Homan said. “Something that isn’t controversial is protecting public safety.”