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Sturgis Rally Trademark Post Mortem – Vendors Say They Got Killed

Attendance was down for the 71st Sturgis Motorcycle Rally from last year, and no one seems quite sure as to why that was.

The number of vendor permits issued by rally organizers was down to  719 this year from 761 in 2010 and 696 sold in 2009.

“So far I am the only person who is ahead of past years,” said Bob Davis, owner of Sturgis Photo and Gifts. Photographer Davis takes a Main Street group photo at noon every day during the rally and that puts him in a unique position to compare the size  of the crowds from year to year. “Compare last year’s Monday noon picture with this year’s Monday noon picture, there were a lot more people last year.”

Several longtime vendors said the dispute over recently registered “Sturgis” trademarks would drive souvenir sales down.

The nonprofit group which now controls licensing for the event, Sturgis Motorcycle Rally Inc. (SMRI), was active in enforcing trademark registration for several rally-related terms this year, and many vendors were worried when the company began leaning on longtime suppliers and vendors to sign licensing agreements and pay fees to use terms like “Sturgis Rally” on their products.

That managed to peeve suppliers who have used their own designs for years.

“I was amazed it turned out as well as it did,” said Tom Monahan, owner of Tom’s Ts. “The stock market crashed in the middle of the rally. The economy was crappy before the rally. There was the trademark war that could have blown up. None of our customers paid any attention to whether stuff was licensed or unlicensed. I think there is a huge issue between the vendors on the trademark issue; but the customers, they’re on vacation. They buy something if they like it.”

Some merchants weren’t quite as happy with the situation and say enforcement of the” Sturgis” trademark hurt their businesses.

“We expected to do about half the business we did last year and we did a little more than half last year,” said Bob Quinn, owner of Express Art, a company that makes embroidered apparel. “We don’t think we will be able to go forward as we have in the past.”

Quinn said he didn’t sign the SMRI license agreement to use the Sturgis name on his products, and not being able to use the name “Sturgis” cut deep into his business.

One of those most vocally opposed to the Sturgis trademark enforcement, owner  of Renegade Classics Kent Mortimer, said  2011 was better than he expected.

“We had a good rally. We got some licensed product. I did not sign a sublicense,” Mortimer said. “But I did get a cease-and-desist letter from SMRI on one shirt.”

Meanwhile, the battle over the trademark continues in the courts.

Concerned Citizens for Sturgis, in response to an early-summer lawsuit filed by SMRI asserting trademark rights against Rushmore Photo & Gifts in Rapid City, is contesting the recently registered rally trademarks. The group mounted a failed attempt at the last minute to get a court order allowing them to sell merchandise at this year’s rally without signing licensing agreements.

Dean Kinney, Chairman of SMRI,  declined to say how many times his group attempted to enforce the controversial trademark agreement this year.

“SMRI did not seize or dismantle any booths or merchandise,”  Kinney said. “The vast majority of the merchandise that should be licensed was licensed.”

Denny Bergers, owners of the Mr. Al’s T-shirt shops, said he sympathizes with business owners who have opposed the licensing requirement.

“I have very good friends on both sides of this controversy,” Bergers said. “I have chosen to be a licensed vendor, and I have all licensed merchandise.

“I don’t have any animosity toward this group,” said Bob Quinn about the SMRI group’s efforts to control the trademark.  “I just don’t think anybody should have it. It’s all being done under the auspices of protecting the integrity of the rally. You drive around Sturgis and see half-naked riders. What integrity are we trying to protect?”

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