Law­suit dis­putes fes­ti­val rights

Own­er­ship of Light City name and logo is chal­lenged by city

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Natalie Sher­man

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.”

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