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Wipeout

Huntington Beach sunk itself in its trademark battle with a Santa Cruz beachwear shop.

January 31, 2008

If Huntington Beach won the big "Surf City" battle against a Santa Cruz beachwear shop, how did it end up looking like the 98-pound weakling with sand all over its face?

The notion was quaint from the start: that the Huntington Beach visitor's bureau could bring in major tourist money by trademarking the name "Surf City USA," pulled loosely from the title of a 1963 Jan and Dean hit. Actually, the trademark conflates "Surf City" and the Beach Boys' "Surfin' USA" -- which mentions Santa Cruz as a hot surfer spot, but not Huntington Beach. (Trademarking "Surf City" would be a near impossibility, as towns in New Jersey and North Carolina officially hold the name.)

In any case, the label hardly puts Huntington Beach at the cutting edge of surfer cool, though it might pull in a few graying listeners of K-Earth 101. That didn't stop the visitor's bureau from going after Noland's on the Wharf in Santa Cruz for selling -- along with fossilized shark teeth and model woodies -- T-shirts that said something long and complicated, including the phrases "Surf City" and "USA."

Protecting a valuable trademark is a worthwhile pursuit. But what are the Huntington Beach folks thinking -- that Santa Cruz T-shirts are somehow detracting from sales in Orange County? They seem to envision "Surf City USA" taking tourists by storm, such a hot brand that street peddlers would sell counterfeits just over the city line in Westminster, along with the fake Rolex watches. Watch your back, Quiksilver.

The ensuing trademark battle transformed a friendly rivalry between the two cities into a bitter little squall that finally ended with Noland's agreeing to add one word -- "original" -- to its T-shirts.

What a deal. Huntington Beach gets the dated trademark and a rep for being a bad sport that tried to monopolize surfing legend for a buck. And the real winner is: Noland's, which has gotten free national publicity -- and public sympathy -- it couldn't have afforded in a decade of surf-tchotchke sales. Soon, it gets the marketing push of unveiling its new shirts.

The visitor's bureau has reportedly spent half a million dollars to promote its trademark. So far, the investment has been worth every penny -- to a beachwear shop in Santa Cruz. As for boosting Huntington Beach tourism, the money might have been better spent finding two girls for every boy.

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