Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Surf City Here We Come...

Where is California's real Surf City? Is it the hippie college town of Santa Cruz, south of San Francisco, where three Hawaiian princes first introduced surfing to the continental United States in 1886?

Or is Huntington Beach, in the suburbs south of Los Angeles, whose board-riding party lifestyle was celebrated by the Beach Boys and Jan and Dean? Ask the average Californian surfer, and you will probably get a shrug of the shoulders. Ask the lawyers, though, and you'll get an earful.

Huntington Beach, which has the harder time drumming up tourist business, took the controversial step a few months ago of trademarking the name "Surf City USA" as its exclusive property. Now its lawyers are firing off cease-and-desist letters to shops and small businesses in Santa Cruz, and triggering a classic Californian north-versus-south showdown.

First in the firing line was a popular Santa Cruz beachwear shop called Noland's on the Wharf. The lawyers from down south noticed that one of its items was a T-shirt with the slogan "Surf City Santa Cruz California USA". That, as far as they were concerned, constituted trademark infringement, and they warned that if Noland's did not stop selling the shirt by the end of this month it would find itself on the receiving end of a lawsuit.

That was when things got interesting. Noland's knocked 25 per cent off the price of the $17 shirt to make sure all 85 in its inventory would sell before the deadline. But publicity over the flap with Huntington Beach caused them to sell out within an hour on Saturday morning. Another 600 people are on a waiting list for more shirts, which may or may not arrive in time.

Quite a few of the T-shirt buyers told reporters they intended to wear it as a badge of honor. Some talked about travelling to Huntington Beach and wearing them there, specifically to taunt their rivals.

Other local businesses with names such as Surf City Produce and Surf City Coffee expect to be next in the firing line. Not that they are entirely defenseless: under US trademark law, challengers have two years to make their case before the trademark is declared final. One California state legislator sympathetic to Santa Cruz also introduced a motion to try to knock down the trademark - a motion that was withdrawn last week.

After the threat to take Noland's to court, a news release by the Santa Cruz tourist office offered Huntington Beach wry congratulations for having "wrangled its first outlaw". But spokeswoman said she wasn't displeased. The controversy, she told one reporter, "put Santa Cruz on the map. We couldn't have bought that kind of publicity."


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