Businessman Told to Take a Long Walk

Times Staff Writer

Note to all the California surfers, fishers and beach bunnies who have long considered the landmark Malibu Pier their own: The name that goes with it is once again safely in public hands.

After a two-week trial in U.S. District Court in Los Angeles, an eight-member jury decided unanimously that the state Department of Parks and Recreation is the rightful holder of the Malibu Pier name and Internet domain name.

The verdict was handed down in a case involving Stephen Harper, a self-styled business-development specialist who took advantage of the fact that the state did not register the Malibu Pier name when it acquired the deteriorating structure 26 years ago with the aim of preserving it.


The case had been watched by other government agencies because it dealt with the question of whether private entities could essentially co-opt the names of public landmarks for business purposes.

“I’m extremely gratified that we have set a precedent for the entire state park system in establishing that these famous names belong to the people of California,” Ruth Coleman, state parks director, said in a statement. “They’re not available to someone who comes along and decides to use them for their own profit.”

Back in 1999, when a restoration project was announced for the pier, Harper registered four Malibu Pier-related names with an Internet domain registrar.

In 2003, Harper contacted the pier’s state-picked concessionaire to suggest that the group join him in a marketing alliance through his Web page

Malibu Pier Partners, the concessionaire group -- which includes Jefferson Wagner, owner of the Zuma Jay surf shop -- declined the opportunity and told Harper that the state owned the trademark. The group told Harper that it had an exclusive 20-year contract and warned him not to use the name.

But just days later, according to Richard Sybert, an attorney representing the state, Harper filed an application with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office for exclusive use of the name “Malibu Pier” in connection with a clothing line.


The parks department sued him in March 2005 and has since incurred hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal fees defending the pier’s name.

“A valid trademark is established through use, not registration, and can be extended to related goods and services,” Sybert said. “The point we made over and over again to the jury was that if Harper were out there selling Malibu Pier T-shirts and hats, the public would think that there was some connection with Malibu Pier and state parks.”

Sybert said Harper testified in court that he felt Malibu Pier was simply a geographical destination. Sybert said his team put on the stand longtime pier devotees who argued that it “means a lot more than a bunch of pilings in the ocean.”

“It’s the whole Southern California beach culture -- Gidget, Malibu beach, the whole fun-in-the-sun culture,” Sybert said.

The jury, which ruled Friday, apparently agreed.

Cris Armenta, an attorney for Harper, said she planned to file a motion that the judge, Dale S. Fischer, set aside the jury’s verdict; she said she would also file a notice of a plan to appeal the verdict. She criticized the state for “an unfortunate expenditure of resources” to “fix its own errors and inadequate development and policing of its intellectual property rights.”

The state, Los Angeles County and Malibu have spent about $6 million renovating the century-old pier, which is designated as a California Point of Historical Interest.


Parks officials said in a statement that they have successfully registered both the names “Malibu Pier” and “Malibu Sportfishing Pier” as California state trademarks.

The pier is part of Malibu Lagoon State Beach, which draws 1.5 million visitors annually.