“Open Studios” Trademark Dispute in Boulder, Colorado

Open Studios

Our guest contributor today, photographer John Uhr, posted this great analysis on Facebook of a current, local and much-publicized trademark dispute regarding the name “Open Studios.”

A quick background:  Open Studios, established in 1995,  is an arts-awareness and -appreciation organization based in Boulder, Colorado.  Recently, the organization has been quite aggressive in its legal efforts to protect the name “Open Studios” in the Boulder area by asserting its trademark rights.  This has impacted many artists in the area, including the Boulder Metalsmithing Association.   Recently, Open Studios and the Boulder Metalsmithing Association are parties to a trademark lawsuit in federal district court here in Colorado.  You can read Open Studio’s complaint, filed in August 2016, here.

FB John Uhr

October 10, 2016 at 11:17am ·

A funny thing happened this evening.  Completely by coincidence, I made the acquaintance of Open Studios board-member and attorney, Howard Bernstein.  He was discussing with Chris Brown (respected photographer and O.S. artist) a certain controversy surrounding Open Studios suing a small arts organization.  Since I have a passing interest in the matter, I asked Mr. Bernstein a number of questions I had been wondering about and listened carefully to the answers. We spoke for around 45 minutes and at the end I inquired whether Open Studios would abide by the results of the upcoming mediation if it should go against them. His answer (after assuring me that Open Studios would most certainly win) was an emphatic “why would we?” ……more on our conversation as I have time.

Ok, It’s later …

This article reports on an unexpected conversation I had with Open Studios lawyer and board-member, Howard Bernstein. The conversation took place at about 6 PM Oct. 10th at Chris Brown’s photography studio and in the presence of Chris and Mr. Bernstein’s wife, who listened with interest and occasional interjections. If Mr. Bernstein disagrees with my characterization of his position, I would welcome his input. These are his words and position to the best of my memory. I would also like to add that I hold no enmity toward Mr. Bernstein and believe he has the best interest of Open Studios at heart.

1) Mr. Bernstein believes that due to the their many years of use of the term, good works, etc. that Open Studios owns the right to the phrase “open studios(s)” for promotion of events in all of Boulder County. I asked if an individual artist (such as Chris Brown) would be allowed to post a sign saying “open studio” and he indicated that he would. I took this to mean that they only wished to control usage by organizations, but didn’t pursue the point.

2) While Mr. Bernstein seemed very anxious to make this issue about Boulder Metalsmithing Association and its director/founder Beth Merkel, it was apparent that he believes that any organization in Boulder County using the term “open studios” is violating OS’s rights and that allowing them to continue would be irresponsible. He would very much prefer that other organizations voluntarily stop using the term and that litigation is a last resort if they refuse to stop using it.

3) Mr. Bernstein believes that Boulder Metalsmithing’s attempt to trademark the term “open studios” was clearly an attempt to get exclusive rights to it’s use (keeping OS from being able to use it). I suggested that it was simply an attempt to ensure that the phrase could continue to be used by anyone, in the face of Open Studio’s demands. I said that I and everyone I had spoken to would be equally against anyone else claiming exclusive rights to the term.

4) I pointed out that literally thousands of organizations use the term “open studios”, many of them for far longer than Boulder’s OS and that I could find no instances of any of them suing to keep exclusive rights, but Mr. Bernstein insisted many times that they were “forced” to take legal action. It was clear to me during the course of our discussion that OS is pursuing exclusive rights to the term and will oppose any use of it, using legal means if voluntary compliance is not forthcoming in the misguided belief that they are protecting OS and their artists.

The Solution:

A search for “open studios” reveals that virtually all other of the thousands of open studio organizations attach their open studios name to their location. “Open studio” is a common generic phrase, while “open studios Cornwall” provides the uniqueness commonly valued in a trade name. For the same reason, common descriptive phrases like “farmer’s market”, “art fair”, “film festival” are attached to a location like Boulder County, Pearl St, or CU International when used as an organization’s name. I suggested that a simple solution for OS would be to attach their name to “Boulder” or “Boulder County”.  Mr. Bernstein emphatically rejected this idea seemingly because “open studios” had always been “open studios” and always would be. Tradition! The response is ironic because one of the main reasons Mr. Bernstein gave for preventing the use of the term by others is the potential for “confusion”.

Mr. Bernstein also seems to be overlooking a much greater potential source for confusion. If OS doesn’t claim “Boulder Open Studios” as a trade name, what prevents another organization from doing so, for instance, as a public forum for discussion of open studios issues and controversies? Talk about confusion!

It seems to me that Open Studios simply made an easily fixed mistake in not using the more appropriate, specific and descriptive name of Boulder Open Studios. Fixing this would do much more to avoid confusion than using a generic descriptive phrase and then being “forced” to prevent other organizations to stop using it.

To make things much easier for Open Studios to adopt this solution, I have purchased the tradename “Boulder Open Studios” and the domain name “boulderopenstudios.org”. I am offering these names to Open Studios free of charge if they will acknowledge that the term “open studios” is simply a common generic phrase which should be available for anyone to use.

What do you think of John’s solution?  Do you agree with Open Studio’s attorney or is this a case of trademark bullying?  This is certainly a case our intellectual property team will be watching!