Rugby regains registration for Geographical Center of North America trademark
RUGBY — After a year of evidence gathering and legal work, Rugby regained its trademark registration for the Geographical Center of North America last August. Now the community’s Chamber of Commerce is seeking to cancel a similar registration held by a Robinson bar that had sent Rugby scrambling when it snatched up the trademarked title that Rugby inadvertently let lapse in 2009.
“We are going to fight it as much as we can. If we can find a trademark attorney that wants to work pro bono or at a discount, then we will take it all the way,” said Bill Bender, owner of Hanson’s Bar in Robinson. “But we are going to do as much as we can with the legal help we have, which is fairly limited.”
Bender called it a bad public relations move by Rugby to take on a little bar like his.
“It’s the big bad Goliath coming after little David. We are having good feedback,” he said.
For Rugby, the issue is defending what they believe to be rightfully theirs. Over the last 80 years, Rugby has taken pride in being known as the Geographical Center of North America. It stakes its claim on a U.S. Geological Survey report in 1931 that deemed Pierce County as center of the continent. A monument erected in 1932 stands at the intersection of U.S. Highway 2 and N.D. Highway 3 in Rugby.
The Rugby Chamber of Commerce declined to comment beyond its Oct. 25 news release regarding the restoration of the registration. But chamber leaders and their attorney did describe in their release what has been transpiring with the trademark.
“Last December we submitted evidence to the United States Patent and Trademark Office that referred to years and years of Rugby’s continuous use of the trademark,” said attorney Bill Weimer, a Rugby native and partner in the intellectual property group Faegre Baker Daniels law firm. No opposition or request for extension of time to oppose were filed during the 30-day opposition period, and, on Aug. 22, Rugby officially registered “Geological Center of North America” with the designation “Rugby, N.Dak.” or “Rugby, N.D.”
The trademark is termed a “principal” registration, which carries stronger legal protection than the “supplemental” registration for simply “Geographical Center of North America,” held since August 2016 by Hanson’s Bar with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.
Weimer called the supplemental register “a waiting room of sorts, to see if over time the registration should be elevated to the principal register because the continuous use of the registered mark in commerce gave it ‘acquired distinctiveness’ in the relevant marketplace.”
The Robinson trademark landed on the supplemental register, because there was no proof Hanson’s Bar’s use of the trademark had acquired distinctiveness, he said. That is, their use has not become a “secondary meaning” for the Geographical Center of North America, he explained.
As other trademark attorneys describe it, a principal registration involves trademarks that are unique or show long and exclusive use, which create a presumption of ownership and greater standing in court if challenged. A supplemental registration, involving a trademark name that’s descriptive but not distinctive, means if challenged, the holder would have to prove the public knows of and associates the trademark with the product.
The Rugby Chamber of Commerce wants Robinson to drop its registration and has filed a petition with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to have it canceled.
“I can imagine how it came about, some guys sitting around in a bar who thought it would be cool,” said Cory Geiszler, vice president of the Rugby Convention and Visitor’s Bureau. “Everyone is trying to find a little niche, but this is our niche.”
Bender said he supports the co-existence of both trademarks. He noted the designation of a geographical center of North America is not an exact science, citing a New York university professor whose research puts the mark closer to Center in Oliver County. He said another researcher has suggested that including the Caribbean as part of the continent would place the center closer to Robinson in Kidder County.
Hanson’s Bar has a Geographical Center of North America decal on its floor and sponsors an annual Centerfest the second weekend in August, which Bender says will continue regardless of whether Rugby wins the trademark battle.
“Nothing is going to change. That’s the thing that Rugby doesn’t realize,” he said. “We will still have our Centerfest. It will be bigger and better next year.”
This past year, the event drew a crowd with free camping, food trucks and entertainment. Bands from Minot were among those that performed.
Shelley Block was executive director of the Rugby Chamber of Commerce when state media broke the news that Hanson’s Bar had applied for a trademark as the Geographical Center of North America. National and international media, including the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, Huffington Post, and even the online version of the U.K.’s Daily Mail picked up the story.
“It was funny to a lot of people,” Block said, “but it wasn’t funny to the people of Rugby or Pierce County. When Bill (Weimer) and I first started working together to get the registration back, we were upset because we are really proud of Rugby.”
Weimer tried to keep legal fees to a minimum, charging only fees required by experts at his firm. Block spent countless hours providing Weimer with information and documentation, staying on as a consultant even after leaving her position at the chamber.
“Bill and Shelley did a really great job,” said Laurie Odden, Rugby Chamber vice president. “They were very professional and courteous. They were the right people working together to get the trademark back and they did it in the way that it needed to be done.”
Now that Rugby’s trademark registration is secure, the chamber reports it will be business as usual at its office and at the local Convention and Visitors Bureau.
“Throughout this process, we’ve taken the high road, so we’re not making a really big deal out of it now,” said Miriah Koenig, current executive director for the chamber. “It’s not something we have lost. We’ve always been the Geographical Center and never lost the rights that arose from that long-standing use. We simply intend to do what is needed to keep the title and move on.”
To insure Rugby’s trademark registration remains in force, Weimer’s law firm will remind the Chamber of Commerce when periodic trademark maintenance fees are due and make sure all future paperwork is handled in a timely fashion.
While community leaders say Rugby and Robinson may have benefited from the media exposure, they add that the title is important to Rugby in terms of community pride, history and tourism.
“I don’t think it has hurt tourism. We still see travelers out at the monument taking pictures every day,” said Rugby Chamber President Ashley Berg, “but we don’t want visitors and potential visitors confused by someone else claiming to have rights in the Geographical Center of North America.”