Note: This story was last updated at 6 p.m.
The Gatlinburg publisher of “Rocky Top”—a bluegrass tune, state song, and unofficial anthem for the University of Tennessee—filed a federal lawsuit on Monday that seeks to prevent Lake City from changing its name to Rocky Top as part of a plan to turn the former coal mining town into a tourist destination.
The publisher, House of Bryant Publications LLC of Gatlinburg, also owns many Rocky Top trademarks, and it believes that the proposed name change for Lake City “is an attempt to unfairly exploit the fame and goodwill of House of Bryant’s intellectual property,” according to a press release from Waddey Patterson, an intellectual property law firm based in Nashville.
The lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Knoxville on Monday. The defendants are Lake City, Rocky Top Tennessee Marketing and Manufacturing Co., Anderson County Commissioner Tim Isbel, Franklin resident Brad Coriell, Lake City businessman Mark Smith, Lake City Vice Mayor Michael Lovely, and Knoxville resident Carl “Buddy” Warren.
The press release said House of Bryant is a small family business owned by the sons of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, who wrote “Rocky Top,” and the company employs only one person.
“The Bryant sons would have preferred not to have to resort to a lawsuit to protect their parents’ legacy, but their efforts to reach an understanding with Lake City have been unsuccessful,” the press release said. “Recent actions toward authorizing Lake City’s name change in the Tennessee General Assembly have left House of Bryant no choice but to commence a lawsuit. The Bryants hope that this matter can be resolved quickly.”
Among other things, the lawsuit alleges trademark infringement, false advertising, unlawful taking, deceptive trade practices, and unfair competition.
It says Boudleaux and Felice Bryant registered the copyright for the song in 1967, and House of Bryant owns it. It has been licensed to many artists and organizations that wanted to perform it.
House of Bryant also registered the federal trademark for the phrase Rocky Top for nine different categories of goods and services that can be used on items ranging from license plates and bumper stickers to drinking glasses and baseball caps, the complaint said. House of Bryant has also operated a hotel called the Rocky Top Village Inn in Gatlinburg since 1982.
The complaint says Boudleaux and Felice Bryant did not write “Rocky Top” about Lake City, “nor is anyone ever known to have referred to Lake City as ‘Rocky Top.’ Lake City is not popularly known, in fact or legend, as the inspiration for the song ‘Rocky Top.'”
The Lake City Council agreed in a 4-0 vote in November to recommend the name change to Rocky Top. It’s the first step in a project to build a multi-million dollar theme park that could include an interactive Knotty Pine 3-D theater, water park, hotel, and restaurant.
Council members did so despite receiving a last-minute letter from Gary L. Montle of Waddey Patterson that warned them that the renaming of the town and location of a theme park in the city would entail other branding and marketing efforts that would violate the Rocky Top trademarks and include “unlicensed derivative works” from the copyrighted song.
“House of Bryant considers all of these efforts to be gross violations of its federal trademarks and copyrights,” Montle said in the Nov. 7 letter. “If the city council approves plans to change Lake City’s name or build a theme park with the name ‘Rocky Top,’ or a variation of that name, House of Bryant will act swiftly and aggressively to protect its intellectual property rights by all legal means available, including seeking a declaration of our rights in federal court.”
It would be the second name change for the town of about 1,800 people in northern Anderson County in less than a century. Lake City was formerly known as Coal Creek.
The complaint filed in federal court on Monday said Rep. John Ragan, an Oak Ridge Republican, introduced a bill, HB1649, to change Lake City’s name to Rocky Top on Jan. 14. It passed the House Local Government Committee on Feb. 4, and it was approved by the House Finance, Ways, and Means Committee on Feb. 18 before being referred to the House Calendar and Rules Committee.
On Jan. 23, Sen. Randy McNally, also an Oak Ridge Republican, introduced companion legislation to achieve the same goal in the Senate, the complaint said.
“Beyond the legislative efforts to advance the name change in the General Assembly, Lake City’s plans are real, moving forward, and pose a direct threat to House of Bryant’s rights under copyright and trademark law,” the complaint said.
It alleged that Lake City wants to be associated with the copyrighted song and the Rocky Top trademarks at least in part due to a relative lack of industry, manufacturing, tourism, or “any other employment base or economic driver.”
Read the complaint here: Complaint- HOB v. Lake City et al.
More information will be added as it becomes available.