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News / Northwest

Pike Place Market and fish-throwing vendor battle over ‘Pike Place’ use

By Paul Roberts, The Seattle Times
Published: September 8, 2023, 9:51am

SEATTLE — Who owns the name Pike Place?

The question is fueling a long-simmering and now-public fight between Seattle’s Pike Place Market and one of its oldest and most recognizable vendors, Pike Place Fish Market — famous for its fish-throwing routine.

On Wednesday, the Pike Place Market Preservation and Development Authority, which manages the iconic and bustling waterfront site, sued Pike Place Fish Market for allegedly infringing on a trademarked name.

Pike Place Fish Market is using “Pike Place,” which PDA claims to have trademarked, to sell fish products outside of the Market without PDA’s consent, according to the suit filed in federal court in Seattle.

PDA has also asked for a preliminary injunction that would bar any sales “outside of the Market of [Pike Place Fish Market] products using the PIKE

PLACE name.”

The suit is necessary “to ensure that the PIKE PLACE name continues to stand for everything that makes the Market authentic, and that the PIKE PLACE name isn’t slapped onto products that undermine the Market’s integrity and reputation,” according to a PDA statement emailed Thursday.

Pike Place Fish Market sees things differently.

The fishmonger says PDA doesn’t own “Pike Place,” which has been part of the fish seller’s name, Pike Place Fish Market, since the 1930s, well before the PDA was founded in 1973. The company also notes that it registered Pike Place Fish Market as a trademark in 2008.

PDA has “strayed from its mission and is attempting to usurp the longstanding trademark rights of at least one of its [vendors],” Pike Place Fish Market argues in a July 26 petition asking the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to cancel some of the PDA’s trademarks.

Although both sides have agreed to mediation in October, the case is getting attention from legal experts for its potential impact on the ability to protect trademarks that are also culturally significant as landmarks.

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For one thing, the PDA is trying to enforce trademark rights for the name of a well-known location, which can be difficult to protect, said John Halski, trademark attorney with the Seattle firm Ryan Swanson.

“I think this is one to watch,” says Halski, who reviewed the filings but is not involved in the case. If the PDA succeeds in protecting a landmark’s “authenticity” on behalf of the public, he says, “trademark attorneys should … be prepared to reconsider their assumptions about how trademarks function.”

The dispute dates to 2021, when Pike Place Fish Market’s new owners broached the idea of an offsite warehouse for its growing mail-order business.

Company owners — Karl Anders Miller, Ryan Reese, Sam Samson, and Jaison Scott — worked for the previous owner, John Yokoyama, before buying the business from Yokoyama in 2018.

The warehouse is necessary because the company’s space at the Market is too small to handle both retail and mail-order business, Reese said in an interview Thursday.

“I mean, we’re 900 square feet, working around 20,000 tourists,” Reese said. “We’re kind of at capacity here.”

But the PDA says the offsite warehouse proposal raised concerns over, among other things, the use of “Pike Place,” which PDA says is covered under a trademark registered in 1999 for “Pike Place Market.”

In their lease agreements with the PDA, market vendors agree not use PDA trademarks in relation to commercial premises or operations of any kind outside the Market Historical District without prior written permission of the PDA, according to the PDA’s lawsuit.

“Use of the words ‘Pike Place’, though not identical to PDA registered trademarks, would still be regarded as an infringement of the PDA’s trademark rights” under the vendor lease agreement, according to the lawsuit.

Despite the PDA’s expressed concerns, Pike Place Fish Market subsequently began distributing pre-packaged smoked salmon products at QFC stores in Seattle that “use and rely upon both the PIKE PLACE and PIKE PLACE MARKET names and marks, in breach of its lease agreements and without the PDA’s authorization,” according to the suit.

The PDA says it has worked with other vendors for other offside ventures. Starbucks, which started in the Market in 1971, agreed to license the name “Pike Place” for “a specific coffee that it sells outside of the Market,” according to the lawsuit.

“We are not opposed to our private vendors using the name as long as we have the ability to work with that vendor to ensure the public trademarks are not exploited and used in a manner that is inconsistent with the Market’s character and identity,” said Madison Bristol, PDA spokesperson, in an emailed statement Thursday.

That regulation is essential to avoid diluting the value of a name that has been essential to the success of the Market’s 500 small businesses, the PDA says.

PDA filings also make reference to a public health alert issued in April by the the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Food Safety and Inspection Service for “Pike Place Fish Market World Famous Clam Chowder with Bacon,” which the PDA describes as an “unlicensed” product. FSIS said there have been no confirmed reports of illness due to consumption of the chowder, which Reese said was made for Pike Place Fish Market by Ivar’s.

But Pike Place Fish Market says it has three separate trademarks for “Pike Place Fish Market,” all of which it received in 2008, and they cover online and retail seafood sales as well as hats, T-shirts, sweatshirts, aprons and other gear.

The company also argues that it has previously operated at other offsite retail locations and “openly and notoriously” used the names Pike Place Market and Pike Place Fish Market, without the PDA’s permission, and that the PDA “never complained about” the use of the names.

“Over the years, we’ve sold our cocktail sauce and our tartar sauce to Metropolitan Markets and, you know, local little mom-and-pop grocery stores around here,” Reese said.

He also downplayed the scale of the off-site product launch. “We’re in some QFC grocery stores,” he said. “I mean, it’s never been some nationwide scheme.”

Pike Place Fish Market also contends that its success and fame are largely due to its marketing efforts and business practices and that “Pike Place Fish Market” was “distinctive and famous” before the PDA applied for trademark protections.

Indeed, only days before the PDA’s suit, Pike Place Fish Market was honored by the U.S. Small Business Administration as a one of 68 “legacy businesses” across America that “have grown from small startups into some of the most recognizable brands in the United States with the support of the SBA.”

The PDA says it tried repeatedly to discuss the trademark and other issues with Pike Place Fish Market, but the company refused and further “claimed it could use the PIKE PLACE name outside of the Market however it pleased,” according the suit.

The PDA said it proposed mediation in July after learning that Pike Place Fish Market intended to sue the PDA, according to Bristol. The PDA was “surprised” when the company went forward with the suit, which asks the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board to cancel some of the authority’s trademarks.

Pike Place Fish Market, however, says it is the one that has been “trying to get the Preservation Development Authority to come to the table for over a year,” according to Kevin Regan, Pike Place Fish Market’s Seattle attorney.

“It was only after being presented with the unfiled petition that PDA agreed to mediate, and it wasn’t until we filed the petition at the … Trademark Trial and Appeal Board that PDA agreed to a date certain for mediation,” said Regan, in an emailed statement Thursday.

Despite the legal back and forth, both PDA and Pike Place Fish Market say they’re ready to resolve the dispute without going to court.

“This is nothing personal,” says Reese. “You know, we think we own the name, Pike Place Fish Market, and unfortunately, they think they own the name, Pike Place Fish Market. And so how do we figure that out?”