Lawsuits fly to determine ownership of 'Tribeca'

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The geographical locale of Tribeca has been around almost as long as the city of New York itself, and the geographical designation of "Tribeca" has a somewhat community-based, grassroots history. But the fight over the use of "Tribeca" -- at least in connection with film festivals -- is only getting started.

On the surface, the current scuffle looks like a David-and-Goliath setup. Longtime Tribeca resident Chuck Harris purchased the domain name Tribeca.net in 1995, and in 2006 he decided to use it to start a short-film festival, calling his group the Tribeca Network and applying for trademarks. Today, his low-budget operation (pictured above) allows users to post video and other multimedia, on which registered visitors may vote.

In the other corner is the Tribeca Film Festival -- and its organizers, whose imprimatur has been apparent on film festivals in New York since 2002 -- which has become a major machine for film and the arts in New York. Tribeca fest organizers also have secured seven trademark registrations for entities that include the "Tribeca" name, and when they learned of Harris' new enterprise at the end of 2006, they sent him a cease-and-desist letter for trademark infringement. "It messed up my holiday weekend," Harris says.

After a federal lawsuit was filed in late January, Harris countersued for harassment. Legally, Harris is on shaky ground. "If this were 'Tribeca Contracting' or 'Tribeca Plumbing,' there wouldn't be an issue," says intellectual property lawyer Susan Hollander, a partner at Manatt Phelps & Phillips. Instead, she says, the idea of "Tribeca" and "film" has become linked to the Tribeca Film Festival, and jumping on the bandwagon might cause confusion.

In a statement, a Tribeca spokesperson agrees: "We feel that their launching properties such as 'Tribeca Shorts Film Festival' creates confusion with the public and sounds like the initiatives are part of the Tribeca Film Festival, Tribeca Film Center and Tribeca Enterprises."

Tribeca has been proactive in this area before, issuing a similar complaint to the Tribeca Underground Film Festival in 2004. That group eventually changed its name to Be Film: The Underground Festival.

"People are easily confused. That's a valid concern," says Jeffrey Abramson, vp film for the 12-year-old Gen Art Film Festival, which, like Tribeca Network, features an online competition.

Since word of the letter got out, Harris says visits to the site have shot up. Meanwhile, Tribeca.net has drifted even farther from a neighborhood connection. "Less than 10% of what's on our site now is generated in (Tribeca)," he says. "It's a worldwide thing now."

Although it's easy to paint the Tribeca Film Festival as a giant trying to eat up as much territory as it can, the fact is that it was running as a successful, trademarked fest for several years before Harris made his move.

Hollander says it's classic trademark infringement. "This is (the Tribeca Film Festival) protecting their (trademark). If you don't police your mark, it's harder and harder to stop other people from using it."

Nonetheless, Harris remains undaunted. "We're going to fight as long as we can," he says. "I don't think they can win this case, but that doesn't mean they can't make us spend an enormous amount of money."

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