The Wolf Trap Foundation for the Performing Arts — a venue near Washington DC that boasting such upcoming acts as Riverdance, Marvin Hamlisch, and the Steve Miller Band — has recently filed suit against The Barns of Rose Hill in Berryville, Virginia (population 2,963 in 2000), which hosts acts such as the Shenandoah Conservatory and the Clarke County High School Chamber Choir.
According to a statement, the Wolf Trap Foundation claims the suit: “…is strictly about trademarks, and the need to prevent consumer confusion in the marketplace. For over thirty years, Wolf Trap has operated a theater in Vienna, Virginia under the name ‘THE BARNS AT WOLF TRAP’ (which is also known simply as ‘THE BARNS’). As a matter of trademark law, if other performing arts theaters in northern Virginia use the name ‘THE BARNS,’ this presents a risk of consumer confusion.”
I really hope that the Wolf Trap Foundation’s public relations team wrote that under duress because they were trumped by the lawyers and management, as this story has all the elements for the Barns of Rose Hill supporters to fight back with:
- The Barns at Wolf Trap and The Barns of Rose Hill only share the words “The Barns” in their title.
- The venues are separated by 50 miles, the Blue Ridge Mountains and Shenandoah River, making it highly unlikely that anyone would confuse the two.
- The Wolf Trap Foundation filed their trademark for “The Barns” after the Barns at Rose Hill opened.
- Berryville’s barns have stood in the same spot for over 100 years, Wolf Trap’s barns were imported from New York in 1981.
- The choice of cliches to demonize the Wolf Trap Foundation are numerous: Big Bad Wolf, David versus Goliath, bully, etc.
Years ago, the Wolf Trap Foundation filed a similar law suit against the The Barns at Franklin Park in nearby Purcellville, Virginia (population 3,584 in 2000). They gave in and changed their name to the Franklin Park Arts Center, so they probably thought The Barns of Rose Hill would do the same. Key difference is social media wasn’t a tool back then.
Outrage by the residents of the area around Berryville using social media spilled over to the traditional media of Washington in The Washington Post and television news. A Facebook page called “The Big Bad Wolf Trap Bully” had over 600 fans in two days and as an editorial in the local Clarke Daily News states: “The Wolf Trap Foundation’s Facebook page looks like a war zone…Supporters have started posting comments with performers who are scheduled to perform at the Wolf Trap venue.”
The Bottom Line
- Just because you think you can (or think you’re right) doesn’t mean you should. As much as The Wolf Trap Foundation wants to spin it that they gave The Barns of Rose Hill a chance to see it their way and change to avoid litigation, just because they have an opinion doesn’t make it right. They were probably emboldened by having bullied another small town arts center before, but were caught unprepared for locals who wouldn’t give up without a fight and have social media on their side. As of this writing, Wolf Trap has backed off its “do what we say or we’ll sue” stance and have scheduled a meeting with The Barns of Rose Hill on January 23. Hopefully this situation will be resolved as it should have in the first place: without lawyers.
- Consider the cost. There are definitely times when you need to protect your brand, but before going on the offensive you have to count the cost. Asking a trademark attorney if you need to protect your brand is like asking a dog if they’re hungry. They are risk adverse when it comes to brands and will likely tell you to pursue action, which is their job. Overzealous litigation can be equally detrimental to your brand in the court of public opinion. Was going after The Barns of Rose Hill worth the risk of bad press, potentially lost donations and ticket sales for Wolf Trap? It doesn’t seem anyone did a SWOT analysis of the situation before going this.
- Only make believable press statements. Wolf Trap’s assertion that “the risk of consumer confusion is particularly strong” is a candidate for Saturday Night Live Weekend Update’s “Really…” segment. As a northern Virginia resident, I can tell you people call the collective venues at the Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts simply “Wolf Trap” and no one would mistakenly end up in Berryville by mistake unless they had a really bad sense of direction.