The firm is working pro bono for the nonprofit Santa Cruz Surfing Club Preservation Society and Harry Mayo, an 85-year-old former surfer who owns a museum-quality photo collection of the early days of wave riding in Santa Cruz.
The two are suing (.pdf) another surfer, alleging he falsely trademarked the original Santa Cruz Surfing Club’s logo. Mayo and the Society say they used the logo in commerce first — including on a batch of fundraising T-shirts licensed by Levi’s, one of which Paris Hilton wore on the March 2004 cover of Elle magazine.
The same month the hotel heiress was published wearing the $100 tee, defendant Ryan Rittenhouse applied to trademark the logo. He incorporated a for-profit entity called the Santa Cruz Surfing Club in summer 2007. Rittenhouse now sells apparel with the logo through what he claims to be “the official Web site” of the Santa Cruz Surfing Club.
Rittenhouse issued a statement in which he “condemns the evil misconstrued lies and false accusations.” He said he invested $150,000 in his business, which is operating at a loss, so the “perception that profit is the only motive couldn't be further from the truth.”
Bring on the lawyers, after the jump …
Steve Johnson, of counsel specializing in complex business litigation at Gibson Dunn — and a former Santa Cruz surfer himself — is leading the team helping on the suit.
“There’s a history of using the name and logo on T-shirts and sweatshirts to raise money for the club and for charitable causes in Santa Cruz, including the surfing statue and surfing museum, that predates Rittenhouse,” Johnson said.
The society is a nonprofit formed in October, and claims it is the successor in interest to the original Santa Cruz Surfing Club, an unincorporated entity founded in 1936 with 27 members. Only 12 survive today, and a majority voted to form the society, according to Johnson.
The society says what’s at stake is the Santa Cruz Surfing Museum, which the city is threatening to close for lack of funds — it costs about $20,000 a year to keep open. The museum has sold clothing marked with the logo and the society is proposing to operate the museum.
Dan Young is the secretary of the society, a surfer in his 50s, and a music teacher at the local high-school. He said this is an important issue because surfing generates $150 million a year for Santa’s Cruz’s economy, and its history must be preserved.
Before Gibson Dunn came on board, their other legal counsel left them scratching their heads for months.
“We had a couple of attorneys trying to figure this out. And it drug out and we finally said we’ve got to find someone who can do it,” Young said.
Young said the litigation is an unusual step for his crowd. In meetings with Gibson Dunn, he is charged with keeping the surfers on track, and making sure they don’t take up too much time reminiscing about the good old days in the company of very expensive lawyers.
“People would start telling stories, because they didn’t know how much these guys make per hour,” Young said. “Surfers, we are so non-litigious. When things get bad, we usually grab our boards and head to Mexico. So this was a big step for us.”
— Amanda Royal