Over the past 96 years, pictures of the Flatiron Building, New York’s oldest skyscraper, have appeared in artists’ portfolios, tourist shops, movies, advertisements, and even the opening shots of a television sitcom. Now they’re turning up in the files at the federal courthouse as well.
Last week, Newmark & Company Real Estate, which manages the Flatiron Building, served the venture-capital firm Flatiron Partners with a lawsuit claiming that the building’s distinctive appearance is its trademark, used to rent office and retail space, and that the image in Flatiron Partners’ logo infringes on it. The dispute is the latest in a series of attempts by New York landlords to control as trademarks pictures of famous buildings, including Lincoln Center, Rockefeller Center, the Chrysler Building, the Guggenheim, and the New York Stock Exchange.
“The whole thing is silly!” says Jerry Colonna, the 36-year-old co-founder of Flatiron Partners, a subsidiary of Chase Bank. “What are they going to do, trademark the whole skyline?” When he and Fred Wilson, 39, founded the firm three years ago, they wanted a name that was “evocative of New York but kind of insidery,” says Colonna. Gotham had already been snatched up by another investment firm, and they worried that Silicon Alley might be a passing fad. They settled on Flatiron Partners, incorporated the skyscraper’s angled cornice into a new logo, sent the whole thing off to the trademark office for registration, and rented space in midtown.
The dispute began when Flatiron Partners’ logo trademark came up for approval last year. Parker Bagley, Newmark’s lawyer, who also represents the owners of Rockefeller Center and the Chrysler Building, saw a chance to establish a precedent protecting the tower as Newmark’s three-dimensional trademark, representing the leasing of office space the way the Nike Swoosh stands for the sale of sneakers. (He knew they couldn’t protect the name Flatiron, which belongs to the whole neighborhood.)
In the past, the Guggenheim and the Stock Exchange have successfully squashed commercial pictures of their buildings. But more recent results have been mixed. The Exchange is currently embroiled in a lawsuit over the New York-New York Hotel & Casino’s New York Slot Exchange in Las Vegas, and the Chrysler Building’s owners backed down last year from an effort to block the dishware store Fishs Eddy from putting the Art Deco tower on plates after the shop’s owners turned the legal threats into a publicity gold mine.
Newmark filed to oppose Flatiron Partners’ trademark and register the building as its own, and pressed Flatiron Partners to credit the building to Newmark wherever the logo appeared. Flatiron, Newmark claimed in its suit, was profiting from the “prestige” of the tower without even renting space there – and, further, was confusing people about the location of its office.
“The building is a landmark, not a trademark,” insists Kenneth Bressler, lawyer for Flatiron Partners. “It doesn’t designate the source of any goods or services – it’s merely a pretty building.” Last Friday, however, Flatiron gave in, reaching into its deep pockets to pay Newmark for the use of the image and acknowledge Newmark’s trademark. It’s not just a pretty building anymore.