IN THE PIPELINE:Courting controversy in surfing cities

"What's in a name?" wrote Shakespeare. If the playwright was residing in Huntington Beach today, a few lawyers would let him know, that's almost for sure — thanks to a battle over a slogan and a small T-shirt shop.

Maybe you're aware of the lawsuit being stoked like fire-pit embers on a midnight beach; a line in the sand drawn between our own Huntington Beach and an upstart from the north, Santa Cruz.

Some background: In 2004, Doug Traub, president of the Huntington Beach Conference and Visitors Bureau, filed 12 trademark applications with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office giving Huntington Beach exclusive rights to promote itself as Surf City USA. Traub's plan also included the creation of a boatload of Surf City USA branded goods and services, like clothing, bicycles, financial services and volleyballs. At the time Traub said, "This is quite a moment for us when you consider the amount of research we have done with thousands of people and the subsequent efforts we have taken over the past few years to bring the Surf City USA brand to market. Our investment has helped us create a monumental lifestyle brand that complements and solidifies our emerging status as the premier overnight beach destination on the West Coast."

Both cities had referred to themselves as Surf City for years, and though they had sparred good-naturedly over the conflict, the addition of USA to Huntington Beach's slogan forced a showdown last September. That's when Noland's on the Wharf, a 45-year-old beachwear shop on the Santa Cruz pier, received a letter from a Southern California law firm threatening to sue the family business. It accused Noland's of violating a trademark because for the last year they'd sold a T-shirt featuring the words, "Surf City, Santa Cruz, California, USA." Bruce Noland (whose parents founded the store) was caught off guard, saying he was unaware that Huntington Beach had even applied for a trademark, let alone owned one. With controversy stirring, the remaining shirts became hot items, fetching as much as $1,000 apiece on eBay. Ginger Noland, the family matriarch, told the Santa Cruz tourist board about the legal threat, and the laid-back college town rallied behind Noland's. Then a local law firm offered up pro bono service to battle Huntington Beach.

A trial is set for Northern California in September 2008, with Santa Cruz suing Huntington Beach under the claim that the trademark of Surf City USA is not enforceable beyond the general Huntington Beach area. So much for good vibrations. (Interestingly, two places in the U.S. are actually named "Surf City," in New Jersey and North Carolina — the latter features the slogan "Big enough to be competitive, but small enough to be happy!" Where they fit into this eddy one can only imagine.)

I asked Traub about the lawsuit, and he was adamant: "What folks have to be aware of is that the bureau's trademark was attacked by Santa Cruz merchants who violated our trademark rights. We believe when this matter goes to court, they will lose. The only real question is whether our countersuit will allow us to collect meaningful damages for their actions; we are asking for a damage award in excess of $1 million." He also clarified an important point. "The issue is about a trademark for Surf City USA and not over use of the term 'Surf City,' which anyone is free to use." (Good news for Surf City Tanning, Surf City Nails, Surf City Escrow, Surf City Coin Laundry and about 70 other local businesses.)

Up in Santa Cruz, Bruce Noland told me he was genuinely unaware that his shirts violated anything. Seeing how the words are stacked in the design, with USA isolated from Surf City, it seems innocent. Noland explains that none of this court fight would be possible without pro bono legal assistance, and he worries what happens if he and his mom are forced to pay a $1 million fine. It appears he landed in the middle of a firestorm coincidentally, and he's dealing with it as best he can. Would he be happy with just "Surf City"?

He thinks so. But this confrontation has reached another level, perhaps past the point of no return. "People here felt we were getting bullied," he said. "I guess that's why so many wanted to fight back."

I see both sides of this: the global "destination marketing" drive of Huntington Beach and the small-town fighting spirit up in those bohemian redwoods. That said, nothing drains the laid-back charm out of a slogan like Surf City USA faster than nasty courtroom combat.

Traub said, "The Surf City USA brand is about the lifestyle and spirit of Southern California, of which Huntington Beach is the perfect example. We are redefining what California beach towns are all about, while staying true to our roots with an authenticity that appeals to all demographics and age groups."

This sounds less about surfing and more about overall lifestyle. Santa Cruz, on the other hand, seems more focused on promoting a pure surfing culture. So I suggest this: let Huntington Beach own Surf City USA®. Let Santa Cruz own Surfing City USA®. And let peace prevail®.

What's your take on this issue? Go to the Independent's website, find my column and post, in 50 words or less, a "Surf City, You, Essay" (get it?). (All who post will receive a signed bookmark from my new book if you shoot me your address via e-mail — through May 17).

H.B. Flashback: In the fall of 1970, the city ran a contest to find a new slogan. Citizens competing for a $100 government bond submitted 481 entrees, and after all was reviewed, the judges awarded a woman named Gene Hansen the prize for her entry: "Huntington Beach — Playground of the Pacific" (one of 54 she submitted!). Runners up included "Huntington Beach looks Sunward, Seaward and Forward," "The City of Sun, Surf and Sand" and "Center Stage of the Recreation Age." In the spirit of Hansen's winner, I created a video at: www.hbindependent.com/video.


  • CHRIS EPTING is the author of nine books including his latest, "Led Zeppelin Crashed Here: The Rock and Roll Landmarks of North America." Write him at chris@chrisepting.com.
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