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Benjamin Spillman

Fray develops over phrase in video game

11 March 2007

LAS VEGAS, Nevada -- Las Vegas is in the crosshairs of a powerful corporate boss who wants to turn Sin City into a family-themed destination, or at least that's the plot of a new video game based on that scenario.

That's why Las Vegas tourism officials will consider blocking video-game maker Surreal Games from trademarking the phrase "Only in Vegas."

They say it infringes on the trademarked phrase "Only Vegas," which was registered by the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority.

It is the second time Las Vegas leaders have taken umbrage with a video-game producer seeking to use the city's image.

Last year Mayor Oscar Goodman said a video game depicting terrorist attacks on Las Vegas didn't deserve protection under the First Amendment.

On Tuesday, the visitors authority board will consider a recommendation to oppose the trademark application.

According to a recommendation by authority employees, the game's proposed plot "embodies potentially negative references to Las Vegas that may disparage or tarnish the image" of the authority's "Only Vegas" trademark, which was registered in Nevada in 2003 and with the federal government in 2005. Surreal's application for "Only in Vegas" is dated April 7.

"We are concerned about the similarity of the two marks, which we believe has the potential to confuse the consumer," said Terry Jicinsky, senior vice president of marketing for the authority, via e-mail. "The logo would imply that the game was developed or endorsed by the LVCVA."

Jicinsky continued: "We have invested significant resources in developing the 'Only Vegas' brand and we don't want any confusion or dilution of that brand."

Surreal Games' corporate parent, Midway Games of Chicago, maker of the popular game "Mortal Kombat," wouldn't disclose how it wants to use the "Only in Vegas" term.

"I guess it all depends," Midway spokesman Reilly Brennan said, adding the company doesn't always turn ideas into new games. "Sometimes they never actually become products."

The plot outline, however, was included on the agenda for the upcoming convention and visitors authority meeting.

According to the agenda the game's protagonists are attempting to stop a businessman from turning Las Vegas into a sanitized, family friendly destination.

"You must create your own powerful empire to stop his takeover," the description states. "Start your career promoting at ultrahip dance clubs, gamble at high-end casinos, race the underground street circuit or get your hands dirty working the underbelly. The right choices will give you control of Las Vegas and put the sin back in Sin City."

The "Only in Vegas" dustup marks the second time in less than a year video-game makers irritated Las Vegas tourism boosters.

In July Goodman and then-Clark County Sheriff Bill Young blasted the game "Tom Clancy's Rainbow Six Vegas."

That game, which was already poised to debut by the time Las Vegas leaders learned of it, depicted terrorists attacking casinos on the Strip and downtown. The images included versions of real-life landmarks such as Bellagio's water feature and the Fremont Street Experience as backdrops and violent shootouts and explosions at fictional casinos.

Although the violence upset city founders, it didn't appear to bother local residents who snapped up copies during the holiday shopping season.

And video games are just one example of the countless depictions of Las Vegas in popular fiction.

The 1995 movie "Casino" depicts Las Vegas under mob rule in the 1970s and '80s and includes graphic violence and even a cameo appearance by Goodman.

Although Midway won't disclose details of its Las Vegas-related plans, the company has a track record of producing popular games.

Midway's most recent edition of "Mortal Kombat," called "Mortal Kombat: Armageddon," has sold a million units since October, Brennan said.

Whether the authority can successfully defend its position remains to be seen.

"Good trademark lawyers could disagree on which way this should turn out," said Jason Firth, head of the trademark group at the Las Vegas law firm Greenberg Traurig.

It could depend on whether the authority can establish that its "Only Vegas" brand is strong enough that a consumer would associate it with an "Only in Vegas" video game.

"I'm familiar with the 'Only Vegas' brand but I live in Vegas," Firth said. "I don't know if general consumers are or not."

He said letting the issue slide could be problematic for the authority, despite the potential publicity a video game could produce for Las Vegas. That's because unchallenged use of a trademark can erode its protection, Firth said.

"If you let the nice people do it then somebody comes along and uses your brand in a disparaging way. ... It makes it harder to stop that one," he said.