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Column: Who owns the Crazy Horse strip club trademark? A federal court holds its nose and weighs in.

While its U.S. cousins squabble over the trademark, the original Paris Crazy Horse is still going strong, naming French lingerie designer Chantal Thomass, center, its guest artistic director this year.
(AFP)

Trademark disputes typically make for yawn-inducing prose, but not when they involve a nationwide battle over strip clubs.

More precisely, a nationwide battle over the name of strip clubs. Even more precisely, the Crazy Horse brand of strip clubs.

A federal appeals court in San Francisco took a major step late last week in settling the nearly decade-long battle over the “Crazy Horse” name by probing into the history of the trademark’s sale and resale. Its conclusion was that “Crazy Horse III,” a strip club, or night club, or gentlemen’s club, or whatever, located about a mile west of the Las Vegas Strip, was perfectly within its rights to use the storied name.

Once associated with a legendary Native American leader, ‘Crazy Horse’ is now a registered trademark for... ‘exotic dance performances.’

U.S. Appeals Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw

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But as is often the case, getting there is half the fun. Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Circuit Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw examined the history not merely of the American strip club trademark, but its origination in Paris, possibly as an homage to the Lakota Sioux chieftain and victor over Custer at the Little Bighorn.

“Once associated with a legendary Native American leader,” she wrote, “’Crazy Horse’ is now a registered trademark for ‘entertainment services, namely, exotic dance performances.’” Its association with strip clubs began with Alain Bernardin, who opened the original Crazy Horse near the Champs-Elysee in Paris in 1951. (Wardlaw acknowledges that no one knows why Bernardin named his club after the Sioux leader.) The first trademark fight erupted only a few years later, when Bernardin filed suit against a London competitor.

In the U.S., the name was, as they say, money. Starting in the 1970s, it got attached to “motorcycle gear, whiskey, rifles,” and strip clubs from Anchorage to Pompano Beach, Fla., Wardlaw observed. The first club owner with the brainstorm of registering the trademark for “exotic dance performances” was one Carl Reid, the owner of a string of clubs in the Carolinas, who was awarded ownership of “Crazy Horse” and “Pure Gold’s Crazy Horse” for those businesses in 2006.

Two other club owners tried the same thing — Russell Road Food and Beverage of Las Vegas, which tried to register “Crazy Horse III,” and Frank Spencer of Ohio. The Patent and Trademark Office turned them both down, over concerns that customers would get confused.

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Reid, meanwhile, licensed the name to John Salvador, a Nevada club owner who operated a club named Crazy Horse Too (after he first tried and failed to invalidate Reid’s trademark) in 2007.

Wardlaw skips over the pre- and post-Salvador history of Crazy Horse Too. That’s a shame, because the history is very spicy. The club was allegedly mob-owned for at least a period in the 1970s and 1980s, and for a time was even owned by the federal government, which had seized the premises in connection with an organized crime investigation. There were alleged beatings of patrons and alleged liquor law violations, and through it all the club remained, as Las Vegas columnist John L. Smith observed in 2012, “as indelible a part of the local landscape as a bad tattoo.” Hampered by liquor law violations and inattentive management, it closed, possibly for good, in 2014.

But Salvador’s trademark rights lived on, the court ruled, in the guise of a $2,500 deal Salvador made with Russell Road allowing the latter to operate as Crazy Horse III. But in 2010 Reid also had licensed the Crazy Horse name to one Frank Spencer, who had formed Crazy Horse Consulting to merchandise the name widely. Spencer demanded a license fee from Russell Road, which sued to validate its own rights to the name.

A federal court in Las Vegas ruled in favor of Russell Road, and the next step was Wardlaw’s court, where Russell Road won again. Spencer’s next step would be to demand a rehearing from the entire Ninth Circuit Appeals Court or the Supreme Court. In Las Vegas terms, however, the right way to bet is that the case is over.

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Keep up to date with Michael Hiltzik. Follow @hiltzikm on Twitter, see his Facebook page, or email michael.hiltzik@latimes.com.

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