The Columbus-Lowndes Convention and Visitors Bureau will continue to use “Columbus MS Spring Pilgrimage” as the name of next month’s annual event in defiance of a cease-and-desist letter from the Preservation Society of Columbus, which registered the name “Columbus Spring Pilgrimage” in September.
The letter was sent to the CVB and Columbus Cultural Heritage Foundation on Monday. Hours later, the CVB board addressed the matter at the start of its regular monthly meeting. The letter was not addressed as an agenda item and no vote was taken, but it’s clear from the discussion the board does not plan to alter its use of “Columbus MS Spring Pilgrimage.”
“I guess everyone has seen the letter,” Board Chairman Steve Wallace said. “Frankly, I think it’s much ado about nothing. I believe there’s enough separation in the names that we don’t have to worry about it. I hate it’s come to this. I’m a bit surprised, but what do we do about this? I don’t think we do anything. If those folks want to take legal action, they have every right to do that.”
Wallace said he talked to an attorney in Birmingham, Alabama who handles trademark/service marks.
“What he told me is, ‘It’s not your fault if people mix it up. It’s also not your fault in the Preservation Society if they choose a name that close to yours,'” Wallace said.
The Preservation Society, made up of more than a dozen owners of historic homes in Columbus, some of whom participated in the Pilgrimage’s annual tour of homes, has declared its intent to wrest away administration of the home tours from CVB as of 2021. The new group is also requesting from CVB the $117,000 in public tax dollars used to help fund Pilgrimage each year.
How that will play out by next year is still unclear, but CVB is moving forward this year with a smaller scale version of the annual event that won’t include most Preservation Society members’ homes.
This year’s Pilgrimage begins March 27 and runs through April 4.
As for the trademark, Whirllie Byrd was the lone member of the CVB board to express concern over whether the CVB would be liable if it didn’t comply with the cease-and-desist letter, pointing out that her search of the Mississippi Secretary of State’s database showed the PSC had registered “Columbus Spring Pilgrimage” before the CCHF registered the name “Columbus MS Spring Pilgrimage.”
Records show the Preservation Society registered its name on Sept. 20, 2019, while the CCHF registered its name two weeks later on Oct. 4.
Byrd asked if the order of those registrations made the CCHF/CVB vulnerable to legal action.
CVB Director Nancy Carpenter said the CCHF first registered “Columbus MS Spring Pilgrimage” in 2012, but the registration expired in 2017 without the CCHF’s knowledge.
“They had sent a renewal notice to an email that we no longer used,” Carpenter said. “When we realized the registration had lapsed, we renewed the trademark.”
In its letter, the (Preservation Society) said the continued use of “Columbus MS Spring Pilgrimage” constitutes trademark infringement.
Trademark infringement is the unauthorized use of a trademark or service mark (or a substantially similar mark) on competing or related goods and services. The success of a lawsuit to stop the infringement relies on whether the defendant’s use causes a likelihood of confusion in the average consumer, according to the online legal encyclopedia nolo.com.
Board Attorney Chris Hemphill said the difference in the two names was great enough to protect the CCHF from legal action.
“Columbus Spring Pilgrimage could be Columbus, Georgia, or Columbus, Ohio, or any Columbus,” he said. “Ours is specific. That’s the biggest reason we would be protected. We also have many, many years of usage of ‘Columbus MS Spring Pilgrimage.’ I think we could probably make a case on that, at least the federal level on that.”
Reached after the CVB meeting, PSC President Dick Leike said he is disappointed the CVB/CCHF board decided not to comply with the letter’s demand.
“We haven’t brought in an attorney yet,” Leike said. “Now, it appears that’s something we might have to pursue. It’s definitely not the response we wanted. A good result would have been for them to say, ‘We understand. You have that trademark. We’ll honor that.’
“What they chose to do was register a trademark that is very blatant in its similarity to ours,” he added. “Now, we have two organizations with basically the same name and that’s going to confuse people who come to town for the Pilgrimage. That doesn’t help anyone.”
Slim Smith is a columnist and feature writer for The Dispatch. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.