Can You Trademark a Place?

Company wants rights to ‘Ditch Plains’ name
Jessica Mavro, an employee at Montauk Clothing Co., showed off one of its many “Ditch Plains” T-shirts. Angie Duke

    Seena International, a Hauppauge apparel company, has filed an application with the United States Patent and Trademark Office to register the name “Ditch Plains” for its exclusive use on clothing.

    The East Hampton Town Board agreed during a work session on June 4 to send a letter expressing its objection to Washington after a lawyer for a New York City law firm brought the company’s effort to trademark the popular Montauk beach and neighborhood to its attention.

    Ditch Plain Beach in Montauk has been sacred to surfers and beachgoers alike for decades. Residents and visitors are drawn there to ride its generally forgiving waves, tan in the sun, and cool off in the Atlantic. The beach’s popularity has created a market for T-shirts, hats, and other apparel that are sold locally with the words Ditch Plains, some of them showing surfers and curling waves.

    Kevin Fritz, a frequent visitor to Ditch Plain and the New York attorney who alerted the East Hampton Town Board, explained the stakes last week: “If Seena is able to register ‘Ditch Plains’ as a trademark, Montauk’s merchants will not be able to sell ‘Ditch Plains’ apparel without the risk of being sued for trademark infringement.”

    “Seena’s attempt to prevent Montauk’s businesses from using the term ‘Ditch Plains’ is as reprehensible as dropping in on a surfer’s wave,” he said.

    Seena has produced clothing under the brand name Ditch Plains Surf Co., selling it to retailers such as J.C. Penny and R.A.G., since 2005, according to an April filing with the federal patent office. No one from the company responded to several requests for comment.

    In 2010, Seena was sued by Abercrombie and Fitch for allegedly making copies of its logo designs. Those designs were modified with the words “Ditch Plains” in place of Abercrombie and Fitch’s text.

    The dispute over Seena’s trademark bid also lies in the significance of the beach to the broader community and to merchants who sell apparel emblazoned with the words “Ditch Plains.”

    Several people interviewed for this article said that to trademark the name is like trying to own the whole idea of Montauk.

    “It’s already so commercialized,” said Lili Adams, who owns the Ditch Witch food trailer at the beach’s East Deck Motel parking lot. “I mean you can buy a Ditch Plain T-shirt in Wyoming. But I think if people knew about this trademarking there would be a lot of pushback.”

    There are at least five stores in downtown Montauk that sell such goods, though locally, it has not proved to be a big income generator. Peter Ferraro of Plaza Surf N Sports said that not much of his merchandise had the words “Ditch Plains” because, he said, “it’s not as big as people think.”

    “I don’t think they’ll get away with it. No one can buy the name Ditch Plains,” he said.

    Though she doesn’t also carry Ditch Plains apparel, Kathy Volpicello, a Montauk resident for 34 years and owner of Wave Wear, agrees with Mr. Ferraro. “It’s ridiculous, Ditch Plains is a place; you can’t trademark a place.” Several Montauk storeowners said they were upset, but not surprised about Seena’s effort.

    At an East Hampton Town Board work session on June 4, John Jilnicki, the town attorney, told the board about the trademark attempt. The board said it would write a letter supporting efforts to oppose the company’s request.

    Abercrombie and Fitch’s multiple trademarks related to the City of Hollister, Calif., which the Ohio-based company reserves for clothing, cosmetics, swimwear, sheets, towels, and other products have themselves been at the center of similar disputes.

    And on Shelter Island some years ago, a clothing maker trademarked the outline of the island itself. He declined to defend a concerted challenge mounted pro bono by a number of Shelter Island lawyers and others to overturn the patent office’s decision.


Comments

What about the two restaurants in Manhattan called Ditch Plains? They have been around for years. The clothing company has been shipping Ditch Plains since 2005 and the restaurant has been around for years as well. The restaurant has owned the trademark Ditch Plains for food services since 2007. There have been no issues to the local Montauk clothing boutiques or food shops at all. Could it be the Manhattan attorney quoted just stirring up trouble? More likely... The town of Montauk should spend its time and money fixing up the Ditch Plains beach and not protesting its marketing! It's more likely to increase tourism and help Montauk, not hurt it!! Hollister Clothing Company successfully has almost 200 stores across America. Hollister, CA the city has not won any protests over this. Fix the beach!