Note: this story was updated at 2:52 a.m.
KNOXVILLE—Lake City’s proposed name change to Rocky Top is on hold for now as a federal judge considers a request to stop the move.
The name change has been proposed as part of an expensive plan to convert the former coal mining town in northern Anderson County into a tourist destination. But it has been challenged by the publisher of “Rocky Top,” a well-known bluegrass song and unofficial University of Tennessee anthem.
Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam has signed a bill that allows the name change, but the proposal has not yet gone back to the Lake City Council for final approval. Under the state law, Lake City could become Rocky Top on July 3, said Tim Isbel, an Anderson County Commissioner and president of Rocky Top Tennessee Marketing and Manufacturing Co.
That company has proposed a development that could be worth up to $450 million over six years and include an indoor and outdoor water park, coal miners theater, children’s museum, train rides, restaurant, and candy company on some 300 acres near two exits off Interstate 75. During a hearing in U.S. District Court in Knoxville on Monday, officials said it could bring 200 new jobs to Lake City and generate another $6 million in sales tax per year. But the project hinges on the name change.
House of Bryant Publications LLC, the Gatlinburg publisher of the “Rocky Top” song, filed a federal lawsuit in March, seeking to prevent the name change. 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.
House of Bryant is owned by the sons of Boudleaux and Felice Bryant, who wrote “Rocky Top.” The company, which also owns many Rocky Top trademarks, has argued 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.” The lawsuit alleges trademark infringement, false advertising, unlawful taking, deceptive trade practices, and unfair competition.
“The whole plan here is to make money, and it’s to make money off this name,” said attorney John Triggs of Nashville law firm Waddey Patterson, which represents House of Bryant, during a two-hour court hearing in U.S. District Court on Monday. “This is a powerful, powerful brand here in East Tennessee.”
He said the name change would turn Rocky Top, which he called an arbitrary term—a “mythical place” that doesn’t exist—into a geographic descriptor. That would give anyone in the town the right to use the name Rocky Top, including for businesses ranging from laundromats to adult bookstores, and it would allow others to infringe upon the trademark with impunity, Triggs said.
But attorneys for Lake City and Rocky Top Tennessee Marketing and Manufacturing Co. argued that Rocky Top, the name of the song, is not copyrighted. They said the U.S. government has recognized a place called Rocky Top in the Great Smoky Mountains since at least the 1920s. It’s already a geographic descriptor, a popular tourist destination and a hiking trail on Thunderhead Mountain, said Knoxville attorney Nathan D. Rowell, who represents Lake City.
“People already have a right to name things after the geographic peak on Thunderhead,” Rowell said.
Also, the name Rocky Top is in rampant use by third parties for products ranging from e-cigarettes to car dealers, Rowell said.
House of Bryant didn’t register trademarks for “trinkets” such as license plate holders and bumper stickers until 2012 and 2013, Rowell told U.S. Chief District Judge Thomas A. Varlan. And Gatlinburg, which is trying to trademark Rocky Top Sports World, is challenging those trademarks, Rowell said.
“Rocky Top is not a famous trademark,” Rowell said. “It’s a famous copyrighted song, nothing more.”
He and Loudon attorney Raymond E. Scott, who represents Rocky Top Tennessee Marketing and Manufacturing Co., said there are 56 federal registrations involving Rocky Top, including for Rocky Top Inn, Rocky Top Marketing, and Rocky Top Moonshine. There are also 264 corporate registrations in Tennessee that involve Rocky Top.
“The term Rocky Top is generic,” Scott said. “They can’t own something that they never owned. You don’t get to own it by writing a song about it.”
He said the burden of proof is on the plaintiffs (House of Bryant) to show that they have sold goods that are now being sold by Rocky Top Tennessee Marketing and Manufacturing Co.
“They have not been interested in pursuing or protecting the brand until recently,” Rowell said. “We may change our name, but we are not going to infringe on their right to sell anything.”
The development project in Lake City was initially proposed by Warren and Coriell, but Warren was injured in a serious car accident in September. Rocky Top Tennessee Marketing and Manufacturing Co. is now leading the effort to remake the depressed town of 1,800 people.
Both sides seemed to agree that this would be the first case where a city has been sued under trademark and coyright laws for changing its name.
Isbel said at least 75 percent of Lake City residents support the name change. He said Rocky Top Tennessee Marketing and Manufacturing’s board is comprised of eight people from very successful companies or families. He said the tourist destination could bear resemblances to Dollywood with its water park, Disney with its 3D theater, and Branson, Mo., with the coal miners theater.
It would be the second name change for Lake City in less than a century. Lake City was formerly known as Coal Creek.
Varlan said he would “take the matter under advisement and issue a decision as quickly as I can.”
Final approval of the name change in Lake City will be deferred until Varlan issues his decision.