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Chris Jones

Convention Officials, R&R Still at Odds Over Slogans

12 October 2005

Despite an expensive 2 1/2-month effort to fix several high-profile kinks in its board policies, questions continue to plague the Las Vegas Convention and Visitors Authority's handling of its popular marketing slogans.

On Tuesday, the authority's 14-member board unanimously approved comprehensive new management policies prompted by last fall's controversial $1 sale of the "What happens here, stays here" trademark. But instead of relegating such troubles to the past, the day also sparked new concerns and led authority leaders to immediately order R&R Partners to return the rights to all but one of the trademarks it previously sought to protect on behalf the authority.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office records shows R&R filed to register the trademark "Only Vegas" on Aug. 29, nearly three weeks after consultants from the San Francisco office of the Morrison & Foerster law firm formally recommended that the authority maintain ownership of all trademarks used in its marketing and advertising campaigns.

That Aug. 9 report to the authority board, which totaled 42 pages and required nearly $249,000 in legal fees to produce, specifically said internal trademark ownership is needed to safeguard the room tax-funded agency's integrity in the community.

For the past several weeks, Las Vegas Mayor Oscar Goodman has headed a four-man special committee tasked with refining board policies. That review followed last year's $1 sale, which authority president Rossi Ralenkotter did not clear in advance with his bosses on the board.

After ensuring similar deals would not recur, Goodman said Tuesday afternoon he was angry when told that R&R had again filed to protect an authority-owned trademark despite the ongoing push to ensure otherwise.

"I'm mystified," Goodman said. "How can people be working on procedures for 2 1/2 months and have this happen?"

Goodman later directed Ralenkotter and legal counsel Luke Puschnig to immediately ensure that the rights to the authority's trademarks be returned by R&R immediately. The lone exception is "What happens here, stays here," which legal experts say must remain under R&R's control until a trademark dispute with California businesswoman Dorothy Tovar is resolved in U.S. District Court in Reno.

A Tuesday board vote ensured that R&R can only use that trademark to promote Las Vegas on behalf of the authority, however.

"This had better be the last of the kinks," Goodman said.

Henderson Mayor Jim Gibson, Harrah's Executive Tom Jenkin and MGM Mirage executive Chuck Bowling also served on the special committee, though none returned calls Tuesday.

Morrison & Foerster's investigation showed the "What happens here, stays here" sale occurred in good faith. But the firm added it would be inappropriate to ask the public to further rely on goodwill alone to protect trademarks that are generally considered public assets.

Zane Gresham, a partner with Morrison & Foerster's San Francisco office, was unaware of R&R's Aug. 29 filing. Speaking in general, he suggested such a move would not coincide with his firm's recommendations.

"In accordance with the policies that have just been adopted, in the future, except in quite extraordinary circumstances, the authority would register any marks and would enforce any marks," Gresham said. "It might, under some very exceptional circumstances, be appropriate to make other arrangements, but that would be something that the board would have to decide."

Las Vegas-based R&R, a privately owned firm, has handled the authority's advertising efforts since 1979. Its CEO, Billy Vassiliadis, said the Aug. 29 filing was not an attempt to violate any recommended policy changes. Instead, he said the step was an extension of a similar request R&R filed to trademark "Only Vegas" in August 2004.

"When all of this (controversy) started, in discussions with Morrison & Foerster, our attorneys said, 'Do you want us to just stop everything.'" Vassiliadis said. "They said no, there was no new policy in place, so (R&R) should do what it needed to do to protect what we've been working on.

"Our lawyers said, 'We might as well protect the ("Only Vegas") type face also. That's it. ... There wasn't some sneaky meeting, sneaky filing or anything like that."

Patent and Trademark Office records support Vassiliadis' claim of an August 2004 filing, though authority staffers are reportedly upset they were not told of the second "Only Vegas" filing in advance. Puschnig also questioned how R&R could file to protect a slogan owned by the authority.

Board member Kara Kelley said the timing of R&R's latest filing was "unfortunate," though she doubts the firm had underhanded intentions. The trademark controversies, she added, have heightened the need for improved communication between the authority's board, staff and third-party agencies such as R&R. "It's been an important lesson with some significant financial costs," said Kelley, president & CEO of the Las Vegas Chamber of Commerce. "There was no harm done ... and we were able to get a top-flight intellectual property firm to come do an internal audit, establish policies and procedures ... which was an important investment in the future of the organization."

From June through August, Morrison & Foerster billed the authority approximately $249,161 for its investigation of the $1 deal, as well as its assistance in developing and drafting of new board policies. Separately, the firm also billed nearly $129,000 for its efforts in the Tovar case, which appears headed to trial.