Lawsuit casts shadow on Light City

Organizers of next year's Light City festival are forging ahead, despite the shadow cast by a dispute between the city and the duo that developed the idea over who owns the name, logo and other parts of the event, which was designed to showcase the bright side of Baltimore.

The federal lawsuit filed by the city asks the court to declare the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts and Baltimore Festival of the Arts, nonprofits that throw events for the city, the sole owners of the Light City name, logo and other marks.


The suit's filing in federal court followed months of back and forth between BOPA and Brooke and Justin Allen, a married couple who came up with the idea for the festival and worked on the event this year. The face-off occurred after BOPA opted not to work with What Works Studio, a marketing and creative agency run by the couple, for next year's festival, attorneys for both sides said.

Both parties said they do not intend their fight to put Light City 2017 at risk. Nevertheless the clash is a dark turn for what was hailed as a unifying event, attracting an estimated 400,000 people for music, panel discussions and art installations during its week-long run this spring.

"It looks to be like a little bit of a blemish and I wish it wasn't there," said Tim Scofield, owner and operator of Tim Scofield Studios and co-creator of the large neon Peacock, one of the installation highlights this year. "I don't know what to do about it."

Bill Gilmore, BOPA's executive director, said he does not believe the lawsuit will damage the festival. His organization already is working to secure sponsors and other parts of Light City 2017. Gilmore said he expects to announce artists and other parts of the 2017 lineup next month.

The festival, which cost $3.8 million to run, had a $400,000 shortfall this year, a gap that Gilmore said was an anomaly related to the first year of the event. The organization has projected a budget of about $4.2 million for 2017, when the festival will expand to nine days and plans to make enough money to cover this year's loss, he said.

"We're raising the bar," he said. "In no way is the festival in jeopardy from a program content or fundraising approach."

Several lead sponsors contacted by The Sun, including BGE, said they remain committed to the event, citing its estimated $33.8 million economic impact. (By comparison, the city sank more than $7 million into preparing for the Grand Prix IndyCar race, which drew about 160,000 people and generated $47 million in economic impact its first year.)

"I would wish that the dispute didn't exist," said Robert C. Embry, Jr., president of the Abell Foundation, which was one of the earliest supporters of the Light City idea, contributing $250,000 this year. "I hope and I think it probably is a minor distraction."

The Allens started developing Light City in 2013, adapting the concept from conferences and events held in Austin, Texas, and Australia. They said they created a company, solicited and secured supporters, and established social media accounts and a website before seeking city backing from BOPA in 2014.

BOPA eventually agreed to adopt the idea, hiring What Works to develop a logo, brand identity, website and produce a conference related to the event, LightCityU, according to the lawsuit. The firm received more than $170,000 for the work, the lawsuit says.

The city says the contract specified that the logos, trade names and other marks would be the sole property of BOPA, which as a nonprofit could not agree to share ownership with a for-profit business. But a later contract, concerning the conference part of the festival, suggests the matter remained the subject of discussion, with the Allens retaining the right to negotiate an ownership stake in LightCityU.

In the lawsuit, BOPA says it was dissatisfied with What Works Studio's work on the conference and eventually took over bookings. After the festival, the organization also decided to organize the 2017 event without What Works. That prompted the split, as well as the threat of an injunction, said William Alden McDaniel Jr., a partner at Ballard Spahr, who is working on the case pro bono for BOPA.

"Their performance was not good," he said. "The city decided to part ways with them and they said we own this intellectual property and we'll shut this down."

The Allens and attorney Julie Hopkins of Womble Carlyle Sandridge & Rice declined to comment directly on the allegations before filing an official response with the federal court. But in an email to friends shared with The Sun the Allens contend they did not assign intellectual property rights to BOPA.


Brooke Allen said she and her husband were surprised the city moved to litigate and are "extremely proud of the work we did for Light City and the conference at Light City."

"Beyond our own personal strife and struggle through this, it's heartbreaking that something with all the best intentions in the world is being shown in this light," Justin Allen said.

Gilmore said BOPA needs to protect its control of the event.

"We've always acknowledged the fact that this was their idea from the beginning and are thankful for that," Gilmore said.

Intellectual property and trademark attorneys said it seems unlikely that either party in the case would seek to stop the event from occurring under the Light City name as part of the litigation, but it is a possibility.

"Things can change, litigation is fluid," said Jan Berlage, a partner at Gohn Hankey Stichel & Berlage LLP. "Right now, the city claims to own and operate 'Light City Baltimore.' It is not trying to stop the light show. It is just trying to stop the defendants, its former contractors, from engaging in what it alleges is unfair competition."

It's not the first time the city has engaged in a trademark fight. In 2013, the city wrangled with ad executive Sande Riesett over the rights to the "Show your soft side" anti-animal abuse campaign. That suit, first brought by Riesett, was settled eventually. Riesett continues to operate the campaign as a nonprofit, according to its website.

Fights over trademarks are not uncommon in advertising, especially if something is successful, but it can hurt business, said Bob Leffler, the owner of the Leffler Agency, which counts the Preakness Stakes among its clients.

"It's not a good thing to wrangle with a client, ever," he said. "I just feel bad for everybody concerned because it was good for the city in a tough time."