What started as an accusation of trademark infringement has morphed into a grassroots fight for the heart of a small town against a multi-million dollar foundation. The struggle is pitting The Wolf Trap Foundation against a little arts center in Berryville known as The Barns of Rose Hill. In what is shaping up to be a classic David and Goliath fight, the small town giant killers aren’t using a sling full of rocks, supporters are instead taking the fight to social media.
It all started when The Wolf Trap Foundation which has a trademark on the name of one of its venues, “The Barns at Wolf Trap,” brought suit against the Barns of Rose Hill claiming that the small rural arts center two counties away is infringing on their brand and doing them damage by using the word “Barns” in their name.
The accused are a pair of restored dairy barns fifty miles away in the tiny town of Berryville, Va. “Rose Hill” was a dilapidated mansion in the 1970s when civic leaders in the rural community first proposed that it be turned into an arts center. In 1978 the mansion burned, so the plan focused on the property’s two dairy barns. During the next forty years, the barns fell into increasing disrepair and the project lost momentum. In September 2004, the present group of local volunteers organized The Barns of Rose Hill as a nonprofit. In a six-year effort, they raised the $2.4 million necessary to transform the old barns into a 21st Century arts and visitors center. It represents the largest private undertaking in the history of the a rural community of 14,000.
The problems with Wolf Trap arose one week after the Grand Opening of the new facility. On September 6, 2011, despite the distance and the fact that the town is literally over the river (the Shenandoah) and through the woods, Wolf Trap’s 28 million dollar a year foundation leveled its legal team’s sites on the bucolic outpost for the arts. Wolf Trap attorneys sent The Barns of Rose Hill a letter asserting trademark infringement based on their trademark on “The Barns at Wolf Trap.”
Then on October 7, 2011, in a move that has drawn the severest criticism from supporters of the Berryville arts center, Wolf Trap filed for a new trademark on the words, “The Barns.” It appears that this trademark has not yet been approved.
The culmination of these moves by Wolf Trap led to the current lawsuit which was filed by the DC law firm Arent Fox, LLP on December 14th 2011 in U.S. District Court. It states that this tiny rural arts group will, by the use of its name, cause Wolf Trap Foundation clients confusion and do Wolf Trap harm.
This is not the first time the mega-arts foundation has gone after small town America. When another barn conversion to arts center opened in Purcellville, Va in neighboring Loudoun County, the Wolf Trap Foundation exerted pressure under threat of litigation, to get the emerging venue to drop the word “Barns” from their name and succeeded. That organization is now called The Franklin Park Arts Center.
In this case, despite Wolf Trap’s substantial resources to litigate, small town America is fighting back with the tools they have available to them and they are succeeding in creating a public relations disaster for Wolf Trap. Residents have turned in force to social media outlets and online tools to publicize what they characterize as bullying and injustice at the hands of a wealthy foundation. As a result, The Wolf Trap Foundation’s Facebook page looks like a war zone. Hundreds of posts and comments have poured in deriding the foundation for their actions. But, the fight has extended well beyond their page. Supporters have started posting comments with performers who are scheduled to perform at the Wolf Trap venue. Acts like Red Molly and Joan Collins have seen comments and posts on their Facebook wall’s asking them to consider the actions of the venue where they will be performing. One resident even started his own Facebook page devoted to publicizing the foundations actions calling it, “The Big Bad Wolf Trap Bully,” and has gathered over 600 followers in two days.
Reviews are also appearing on Google Local pages, Yelp pages and the list goes on and on. Articles published in online news outlets have also received hundreds of comments rebuking the foundation for their actions.
The efforts appear to have at least caught the attention of officials at the Wolf Trap Foundation. After near silence in social media, representatives have started to interact with angry posts on Facebook. Yet, even their attempts to calm the storm seem fraught with missteps. In one exchange the Wolf Trap moderator mistakenly refers to the the Berryville organization as, “The Barns at Rose Hill,” when it is actually “The Barns of Rose Hill.” While this is a small misstep, when the argument is over semantics it is an epic blunder. Wolf Trap was immediately called out on the mistake and quickly corrected it.
While it seems it will be an uphill fight for the small organization in Berryville, the community support seems to be having an effect. According to Ann Lesman, Chairman of the Board of Directors at The Barns of Rose Hill, The Wolf Trap Foundation failed to respond to inquiries to meet over the issue. However, two days after the news broke and the storm rose in social media, a call went out to set up a meeting scheduled for Monday.
Regardless of the outcome of the pending litigation, this entire incident may very well end up in a textbook someday as a case study of an epic failure in public relations by a major foundation.