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Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Trademarked…Should You Care?

photo courtesy of ·

The arrival of August signals the beginning of the end of the summer for many motorcyclists.

And, the biggest motorcycle event in the summer is Sturgis Bike Week.

Making the pilgrimage to the Black Hills is a rite of passage that some of us only dream about, while some of us do every year.

Uh, oh. I just realized that by not asking permission, and by not using the circle R ® trademark symbol after the word “Sturgis Bike Week” I might be in trouble with the entity that claims the term as a trademark.

While it may seem I’m being a little absurd, and even though I’m using the term in an editorial, Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Inc, (SMRI) might decide that I don’t have that right, and could very well send me a cease and desist letter. Even going so far as to ask for punitive damages.

But, I’m hopeful SMRI won’t sue since they’ve got their hands full, frying bigger fish to fry.

SMRI is flexing it’s legal muscle, fresh off the grill with an out-of-court victory over Little Sturgis Kentucky rally, and two forced surrender wins over Sturgis South (Mississippi) and Sturgis on the River Rally. One rally quit, and the other changed it’s name. Now, SMRI wants its neighbors in the Black Hills to pay up.

Let me see if I can reduce this down to a simple analogy. One day someone (or a group of people) plant an apple orchid on land nobody owns and nobody claims. The orchid is cared for and tended until it’s time to gather in the fruit. Then the community allows outsiders to come in with the necessary equipment and help with the harvest.

This works fine for over 60 years. That’s when someone in the community realizes nobody actually “owns” the orchid. So they file paperwork and now at harvest time, (without doing anything to improve the orchid or enhance the flavor of the fruit) the new owners force everyone, (no matter how long you’ve been picking free apples) to pay for the privilege of harvesting the apples. No fee, no fruit.

While that strategy worked on outsiders, the locals are gathering their pitchforks and torches and marching on the castle.

After receiving notice it was being sued, Rushmore Photo and Gifts held a press conference in mid-July and said it intends to “vigorously defend” itself against allegations of trademark infringement by SMRI (Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Inc.)

And it has recruited others to help. Specifically those small businesses in the Black Hills who stand to lose the most revenue if the trademarks are allowed to stand. Calling themselves the “Concerned Citizens for Sturgis,” The fledgling group is raising money to challenge nine trademark registrations owned by SMRI.

In their counter claims and answer to the SMRI suit, Rushmore Photo and Gifts says that the (previous owner) Sturgis Chamber of Commerce obtained their trademark fraudulently, since they did not have “exclusive use” of the term Sturgis as it refers to motorcycles and motorcycle rally for 5 years prior to filing for trademark protection. SMRI is going to have a hard time with that one.

The Concerned Citizens are also calling for a boycott of “official” licensed merchandise.  That one might be a tough sell to bikers.  A better tactic might be to ask bikers to seek out “Outlaw Sturgis Merchandise” since we all know how rebellious and anti-establishment we old biker dudes can be.

But, that’s just my opinion and we all know the saying about opinions and Uranus. Every solar system has one.

According to reports in Dealernews and a white paper sent out by the lawyers defending Rushmore Photo and Gifts, the owners of Hot Leathers/Good Sports and Black Hills Harley-Davidson are also board members of SMRI.

Both Hot Leathers and Black Hills HD initially opposed the Sturgis Chamber of Commerce’s trademark action, and rightly so, because it would have negatively affected their revenue from t-shirt sales during the rally.

At some point, (and I am going on complete conjecture here) a deal was cut that Jerry Berkowitz (owner of Hot Leathers) and Jim Burgess, (an owner in the local HD dealership) could live with and secured them a seat at the table, and a slice of the “licensing revenue” or at least a “permanent exemption” from having to pay future licensing fees to use the word “Sturgis.”

And that class, is how smart business is done in America.

It’s been said that business and politics are step-brothers and if that’s true, Berkowitz would make the consummate politician.

He can flip flop quicker than a catfish stranded on a sandbar.

In 2001, when the Sturgis Chamber of Commerce started this trademark fiasco,  Berkowitz  as President of Good Sports, (in a sworn affidavit) accused the Sturgis Chamber of Commerce of committing fraud in their claim for “exclusive use” of the mark “Sturgis.”   In that suit, Good Sports (ie Jerry Berkowitz) admitted that the very trademark he is now trying to force others to pay to use  has been used freely  in the public domain continuously since at least 1982 in connection with the sale of Rally Products at the Rally (Sturgis) and elsewhere.

In fact, Berkowitz (Hot Leathers) is so slick that while he’s in one Federal Court claiming the term “Sturgis Bike Week” is unique and should be protected, he’s in different Federal Court arguing that the term “Daytona Bike Week” isn’t special and shouldn’t be protected.

Hmmmm….that’s interesting. But not surprising since a competitor of Hot Leathers pulled a fast one on everybody last year and secured a trademark for “Daytona Bike Week.” So, it’s understandable that Berkowitz wants the Daytona mark invalidated. Otherwise he will have to pay a licensing fee to use Daytona Bike Week.

Now I’m no fortune teller, but I’d bet my right thumb there’s some secret closed door negotiations going on that will give Hot Leathers a Sturgis type deal in Daytona.  I mean you can’t really blame the Chambers who work these deals.  After all, they give Hot Leathers a free pass to use the trademark, and in exchange, Hot Leathers uses their clout to force everyone else to pay up.  I’d say that’s a sweet deal for everyone but those pesky little people who are becoming quite a nuisance.

Besides his legal maneuvering, Berkowitz has also filed to trademark Laconia Bike Week and Laughlin 2005 (and every year through 2010) according to the report in Dealernews.

So, you ask, why should we care that one group of businessmen are fighting with another group of businessmen over who can print a slogan on a few t-shirts?

Indeed, why should we care?

But yet I do. It just smells like legalized extortion.

And the argument that “it benefits the local charities” doesn’t pass the smell test either. Some of the most notorious mobsters in history were big contributors to the church and charities in their communities.

But what the heck, let’s just live free and ride free because we’re not here for a long time, just a good time, right?

Until next month, ride safe and always take the road less traveled.

4 thoughts on “Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Trademarked…Should You Care?

  1. That's right! Or boycott those involve directly. What a bunch of uncreative idiots! Can't even come up with their own ideas, let alone any great artwork designs. Their company itself may have done well money wise back in the day, but just about all those in it now are a bunch of heartless, miserable, losers with no vision and nothing going for themselves in real life.

  2. i am more than happy to boycott the compannies that have bastardized biker events into milque toast trailer/chrome parades. If they want my hard earned biker money they have to not exploit or extort me to get it.

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