Tuesday, April 30, 2002

The Wrights' stuff

Trademark decision may affect merchants

By James Hannah
The Associated Press

        DAYTON, Ohio — Wilbur and Orville Wright were teetotalers and would be horrified if their names were used to endorse alcoholic products, their relatives say.

        The brothers' great-grandnephew, Stephen Wright, says linking their names to beer mugs and ashtrays would demean their legacy as the 100th anniversary of their first flight is celebrated.

        So an agency that represents the brothers' relatives has applied for federal trademark protection on the Wright brothers' names and images on 22 classes of products, including clothing, calendars and note cards. Retailers in Ohio, where the Wrights invented their plane, and North Carolina, where they made their historic flight, are concerned they might have to pay royalties, even on items sold in the past.

        It isn't known when federal trademark protection would be granted. But the Roger Richman Agency in Beverly Hills, Calif., has already had the legal right to the Wright brothers' name and images since 1992 because of laws in Ohio, California, Indiana and other states, said the agency's president, Roger Richman.

        “We're here to preserve the legacy of the Wright brothers and be sure their image is being handled in a way that they handled it themselves,” Mr. Richman said.

        Having federal trademark status would provide more clout in fighting improper use of the brothers' images, he said. Family members, who number about 20, also want a share of the profits from the sale of Wright brothers-related products to go to nonprofit groups.

        The brothers invented and developed their airplane in Dayton and flew it for the first time on the sand dunes of Kill Devil Hills, N.C., Dec. 17, 1903.

        John Harris, owner of Kitty Hawk Kites in Nags Head, N.C., said his stores stopped selling T-shirts, cups, caps and other items bearing the Wright brothers' names and likenesses last year when he became aware of the issue through his work with the First Flight Centennial Foundation of North Carolina.

        “You're not sure what you can do and what you can't do,” Mr. Harris said. “It puts a cloud over the merchandising side of things in our area. It takes energy from the event. People are confused and afraid. The last thing people want is litigation because businesses cannot afford it.”

        Jim Sobieraj, of American Exchange of Charlotte, N.C., represents businesses that have now stopped selling first-flight products. But he believes the Wright brothers are in the public domain, like George Washington.

        “Nobody has been making any serious money on this,” said Mr. Sobieraj, who represents 18 businesses. “It's going to cost them a lot more money simply to have a copyrighted licensed item, and the only person to benefit is someone out in Beverly Hills.”

        Stephen Wright said the family wants a share of profits from Wright brothers' merchandise to be given to nonprofit organizations that promote aviation.

        Over the past six years, the nonprofit Wright Family Fund has distributed $435,000 to such organizations. “None of this goes into our pockets,” Mr. Wright said.

        He said merchants who want to use the Wright brothers' names or images must first get permission of the family and then be granted a sales license by the agency. The licensing agreements require a 10 percent royalty on sales of the products, with 65 percent of that royalty going to the Wright Family Fund and the rest to the agency.

        North Carolina Senate leader Sen. Marc Basnight has been flooded with inquiries from Outer Banks businesses.

        “It has in some ways started dampening the enthusiasm in the local community,” said Norma Mills, Sen. Basnight's general counsel. “I've got merchants ... literally sitting on purchase orders not knowing whether they can make a purchase or not.”

        Ms. Mills said she understands the family's intentions. “What we have concerns about is what appears to us to be the overreaching that this agency appears to be doing,” she said.

        Mr. Richman said his agency does not plan to require the National Park Service, Smithsonian Institution or other government agencies to pay royalties on Wright brothers' items sold at gift shops.

        Commissions, foundations and committees formed in Ohio and North Carolina to mark the anniversary have developed and registered their own logos and slogans.

        The First Flight Centennial Foundation in North Carolina has established its own logo and registered the phrases “World's First Flight Centennial,” “Event of the Century” and “Rise to the Occasion.”


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