Donald Trump and his ex-wife Ivana Trump are brawling again. In an intellectual property scrap perfectly suited to this new gilded age, they’re tussling over who owns the name “The Donald.” Ms. Trump believes she has the right to use it because she coined the nickname and has filed an application to trademark it. She said she plans to exploit its commercial possibilities on behalf of her son, Donald Trump Jr., a 21-year-old senior at the University of Pennsylvania.
Mr. Trump, 52, learned only recently that his ex-wife had laid claim to “The Donald” for her own use. He wasn’t happy about it. “She doesn’t have the right to use any name referring to me,” Mr. Trump said. “Obviously, this was a reference to me. Look, as you can see, she tries to gain maximum advantage whenever she tries to use the name Trump.”
A legal scholar took his side. “If she is using ‘The Donald’ and she says, ‘What I really mean is my son,’ I don’t think she’s going to get very far with that argument,” said Hugh Hansen, a professor at the Fordham University School of Law and author of Intellectual Property Law and Policy .
Whether the developer is $2 billion in debt or riding high, the meaning of the Trump name remains the same. To pump its value, he has slapped it on the sides of airplanes and gaudy buildings, on billboards by the Lincoln Tunnel and on the covers of his various business memoirs ( Trump: The Art of the Deal ; Trump: The Art of the Comeback ). Either through clever marketing or his own need for media attention, he has made “Donald Trump” not so much a name for an actual human being, but a brand name.
At times he has tried to protect the value of his glorious surname by publicly sniping at his ex-wife’s efforts to build her own empire with its help. But without her, Mr. Trump could become a fading property: Ivana is the one who, time and again, has kept the Trump soap opera alive, using her former husband and her 17-year-old daughter, the would-be supermodel Ivanka Trump, as key narrative devices. And without the soap opera, the name is worth nothing.
The battle for the rights to “The Donald” began with the Jan. 14 opening of Culture Club, a nightspot on Varick Street with a 1980′s nostalgia theme. The place has waitresses dressed as Madonna wannabes and mixed drinks with names like the Smurf and the Rubik’s Cube. The club’s owners also planned drinks called “The Donald” (a Manhattan straight up), “Ivana” (a flute of Moët Champagne) and another one named for Mr. Trump’s onetime mistress and eventual second wife, Marla Maples (champagne with peach schnapps). Ms. Trump’s intellectual-property attorney got in the way of the nightclub’s retro fun by insisting that the owners abandon the Donald and Ivana drinks and scrap the Trump Lounge it had built on the second floor.
On the club’s opening night, a mural of Mr. Trump was left in darkness. “We’ll be painting him over,” said a publicist for the club, gesturing quickly.
Mrs. Trump, 49, said she filed for the rights to the phrase “The Donald” five years ago and added that she recently applied to re-register her expired claim. “It’s for one reason,” she said. “I have a son who is called Donald Jr., and I want to have and use it for his fragrance, as I did with Ivanka … It is the phrase which I have created and I trademarked it. I absolutely have no intention of using my ex, or making money off him.”
But Ms. Trump, who was born in what is now the Czech Republic, is certainly moving closer to her former husband’s traditional domains of real estate and gambling. She plans to open a lodge named Ivana Suites in Manhattan sometime in the next year and a half. Her casino in Dubrovnik, Croatia, is scheduled to open this summer. At both operations, she hopes to offer drinks named “The Ivana” and “The Donald.” She also envisions a line of clothing bearing the name “The Donald.” All this would be meant, supposedly, as a tribute to her son and would balance his account with that of his more-marketed sister, Ivanka.
Unlike his parents, Donald Trump Jr. wants nothing to do with the press, according to sources in the family and those who know him in college. He is a student at the undergraduate division of the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. He is a fraternity member and goes by the name Don. He declined to comment for this story.
Mr. Trump sounded less than pleased with the notion that his son would be known by the nickname “The Donald.” “I don’t think Donny wants to be referred to as ‘The Donald,’” he said. “And for good reason. I would very much like not to be referred to as ‘The Donald.’ I would like to do without it.” (Never mind that the first sentence of Trump: The Art of the Comeback goes like this: “It’s usually fun being The Donald.”)
Mom, in contrast, sees the already-made name as too valuable a property. “He’s coming out of the Wharton School of finance,” she said, “and he wants to get involved in the business, and this is what I thought would be handy.”
Aside from “The Donald,” Mr. Trump also has a dim view of Ivana’s tenacious hold on the Trump name. Said one Trump Organization insider: “She’s not allowed to use the name Trump, but she really wants to.” She was married, from 1995 to 1997, to Italian highway and airport designer Riccardo Mazzuchelli, but his name has not stuck to her. Even during that brief marriage, she went by Ivana Trump Mazzuchelli. A Trump source said Mr. Trump will not object to her using the Trump name “provided she uses it well.” (Ms. Trump received $14 million, an apartment in Trump Plaza and a manse in Greenwich, Conn., in the couple’s 1991 divorce.)
Mr. Trump’s lead lawyer, Bernard Diamond, said he and his client both see nothing pure in Ivana’s latest entrepreneurial efforts. “He’s concerned, as we all are, that she seems to take great pleasure in exploiting his name and has done it for quite a long period of time everywhere,” said Mr. Diamond. “I don’t think he’s prepared to sit there quietly and let her try to gain proprietary rights in the name ‘The Donald.’ Obviously any efforts to exploit that name would in fact be exploiting his name, and she has no right to do so.” He said Ms. Trump’s people would be notified by letter, with follow-up at the U.S. Patent & Trademark Office. “We’re going to file for their application being filed and we’ll contest at the appropriate time,” he added.
Ms. Trump, oddly enough, has also lost her first name. In 1995, a trademark collector in England, Suleman Tahir, registered the name Ivana in hopes that she or someone else would want to buy it one day. (Mr. Tahir has also trademarked the names Santa Claus and Pocahontas, probably with quick paydays in mind.) “Within a month, I think I’m going to get my name in the U.K. back,” Ms. Trump said. Her experience with Mr. Tahir partly explains her quick objection to the Culture Club’s plan to use the Trump-related names. “The Culture Club, they meant it in a flattering way, I know–they didn’t mean to harm anybody,” said Ms. Trump.
Mr. Trump, it should be noted, is as zealous as his ex-wife in using legal means to protect the name. The tycoon owns rights to more than 60 different trademarks, including Taj Mahal and even the letter T. Technically, Mr. Trump controls only those lone T’s plastered on his hotels or associated Trump paraphernalia. He also objected to the Culture Club’s attempt to use the Trump-related names at their kitschy venue, with his lawyer sending a routine letter objecting to the idea.
The Culture Club decided not to put up a legal fight against the Trumps. One might think they could have mounted a defense based on “satire” or “parody.” After all, there’s no chance of mistaking the grungy place, with nostalgic pictures of E.T. and Adam Ant plastered everywhere, for a Trump property. But intellectual property lawyer Siegrun Kane said that, based on Federal court precedent, Culture Club would have had an uphill battle: “There’s an Elvis case, in the Fifth Circuit, some nightclub was using Elvis Presley, the Velvet Elvis or something like that,” Ms. Kane said. “And the Court didn’t permit that.”
Mr. Trump said he is not absolutely against his ex-wife making money off of “The Donald,” however. “It would always be subject to my approval,” he said. Presumably, the Trumps will soon be negotiating. If they can’t agree, the erstwhile couple could end up before a trademark examiner, just as the Gallo wine family of California did after one estranged Gallo scion applied for a trademark for Gallo cheese. The examiner ruled that cheese was too similar a product to wine, and denied the heir’s request.
Other celebrities have managed to finesse these little tributes. With its sandwiches, the Stage Deli has honored, without incident, 34 celebrities, including Evander Holyfield, Neve Campbell, Gloria Estefan and Rudy Giuliani. “If anyone had a problem, we’d take their name off it,” said Stage owner Paul Zolenge. He has never consulted an intellectual-property lawyer.
Ivana claimed to have no sense that she was picking a fight: “I have no grudges against anybody,” she said, “and I absolutely don’t, specifically, applying to Donald Trump.”
It wasn’t clear if she was referring to Donald Trump, the man, or Donald Trump, the brand.
Additional reporting by Gabriel Snyder.
You can reach N.Y. Law by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.