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Group serious about 'Light Up Night' name

Tom Fontaine
| Thursday, Dec. 17, 2009

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership isn't flattered by imitation when it comes to Light Up Night.

First held in 1960, the group's 49th annual Light Up Night last month drew more than 200,000 people to the Golden Triangle for tree-lighting ceremonies, concerts, fireworks and other festivities.

Over the years, community celebrations with Light Up Night in their name have become ubiquitous in Western Pennsylvania and places such as St. Augustine, Fla., Ontario, Calif., and Curramulka, Australia.

The threat of lawsuits could change that.

The Pittsburgh Downtown Partnership has had a federally registered trademark on the phrase "Light Up Night" since 2003. It recently started notifying communities and organizations with similarly named events.

Mt. Lebanon last month became the first community to receive a cease-and-desist letter. Alex W. Thomson, an attorney for the partnership, said he's sending out 15 to 20 more.

Thomson would not identify the recipients, but said the groups he spoke with "have been amenable" to the letters. He said the partnership is considering licensing the name for a fee to interested groups.

"We're not trying to be Scrooge," Thomson said. "We're trying to protect our rights. There's a reason why so many people use 'Light Up Night' -- it's a great name, it has cache. And that has been developed over nearly 50 years by the partnership and its predecessors."

But for smaller communities, it appears to be a case of Goliath taking on David.

"We were sort of shocked and awed," said Eric Milliron, the commercial districts manager in Mt. Lebanon.

Mt. Lebanon has put on a light up night along Washington Road since the early 1980s. The Uptown Mt. Lebanon Business and Professional Association, an event co-sponsor, received its cease-and-desist letter a week before Light Up Night 2009 kicked off, long after fliers were posted on utility poles and an ad appeared in the municipality's monthly magazine.

Milliron said Thomson ultimately agreed to let the event -- which attracts 800 to 1,000 people a year -- keep its name this year, but "told us it would be advisable to come up with a new one next year."

Lights Over Lebo has been one of the early ideas floated, but leaders likely will look to neighbors for ideas.

"We don't think our event in any way threatens the one Downtown," Milliron said. "This year, our high school band performed, high school kids sang, third-graders were caroling in Spanish, and Santa was on a fire truck. It's a Mayberry event. But we don't have the money to fight legal battles like this."

Milliron and other community officials wondered why Mt. Lebanon was singled out first.

"To be blunt, we just had to start somewhere, and it just so happened that a flier (for the Mt. Lebanon event) went to our CEO's home," said partnership spokeswoman Hollie Geitner, referring to Michael M. Edwards, a resident there.

"We were a little concerned, with Mt. Lebanon in particular, that they were advertising theirs (to be held) the night before ours. We thought it blurred our brand a bit," Edwards said.

Edwards said a negative incident at an unrelated Light Up Night event -- such as a fireworks accident or someone hurt by an animal, for example -- could reflect poorly on the Downtown event. Nine people suffered first- and second-degree burns and other injuries last month at Etna's festivities when a fireworks display tipped over and fired six mortars into the crowd.

Unrelated events could draw sponsorship dollars away from the Downtown event, Edwards said. The partnership spent $125,000 on this year's event, and sponsors kicked in $75,000; the partnership board would like to see sponsors contribute a larger share, he said.

Franklin Molin, an intellectual-property attorney with K&L Gates, said organizers could make a case to keep Light Up Night in their events' names, but the legal battle could be costly.

He said the fact that numerous communities staged similarly named events without opposition for years -- in many cases, decades -- could help them. He said some could argue the phrase has become generic.

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