City sues couple who came up with the idea for Light City Baltimore

It's a messy breakup between the city and the couple who came up with Light City Baltimore.

The Baltimore arts council* that put on this past spring's inaugural Light City Baltimore festival has sued the couple that came up with the idea, and is asking a court to rule that the name, logos, designs and other elements associated with the festival belong to the city.

The suit, which lists among its plaintiffs the mayor and City Council of Baltimore, was filed Wednesday in U.S. District Court and asks that the court restrict Brooke and Justin Allen, a married couple, from using Light City design elements in a way that suggests they own them, or any associated intellectual property. It also asks that the Allens, whose creative agency is called What Works Studios, refrain from "falsely representing" that they are connected with the Baltimore Office of Promotion & the Arts, which sponsored the seven-day festival.

The court filing says that after the city declined to discuss giving the Allens an ownership stake in the festival, the couple agreed instead to be listed as a major corporate sponsor. The Allens signed a contract acknowledging that the city would retain ownership rights to the festival's intellectual property, according to the suit.

However, the suit alleges, the Allens and What Works Studios "have repeatedly claimed that they... own the Light City Marks" and that the city has no "ownership interest or right in the Light City Marks."

In a written statement, BOPA Executive Director Bill Gilmore said negotiations between the city and the Allens have been going on for "months." He declined to discuss specifics of the case or to expand on his statement.

Beyond asking that the court determine ownership of the design elements and intellectual property, the suit asks for compensatory and punitive damages "to be determined at trial." No court date has been set.

Justin Allen said Thursday he had not seen the suit and that he was reluctant to go into any detail concerning the dispute.

"I'm not surprised to be attacked by BOPA in this way," he said, "after they didn't hold up their end of the deal." He declined to elaborate, but said he looked forward to a trial, when "justice will be served."

The court filing acknowledges that ownership of the Light City marks and intellectual property is in dispute. BOPA has applied for trademark protection but is still awaiting a final determination. The filing also contends that the Allens, who were paid "in excess of $170,000" under a contract with the city, were supposed to book speakers for Light City U, an innovation conference held during the festival. They failed to do so, according to the court documents, "thereby jeopardizing the conference portion of the festival and the overall success of the festival."

Held from March 28 through April 3, the privately financed Light City Baltimore featured dozens of illuminated art installations, as well as food and entertainment. Modeled after Australia's annual Vivid Sydney festival, organizers envision its becoming an annual event that will attract tourists from around the world. The first festival attracted an estimated 400,000 visitors to the main festival at the Inner Harbor and five satellite sites, according to BOPA. It also lost about $400,000, according to the court filing. Gilmore said that money would be made up for through future Light City festivals.

Next year's Light City Baltimore is set for March 31-April 8.

The Allens, who live in Roland Park, came up with the idea of a light festival in 2010 and began shopping the idea around in 2013, according to a profile in The Baltimore Sun. They eventually signed on with the nonprofit BOPA.

chris.kaltenbach@baltsun.com

twitter.com/chriskaltsun

* This story has been updated. An earlier version referred to the Baltimore Office of Promotion and the Arts as a city agency. It is a nonprofit that serves as the city’s arts council, events agency and film office.

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