WDST, Radio Woodstock 100.1 FM has dropped its trademark infringement lawsuit against the local radio station Woodstock 104, but it appears not to be the end of the saga for the community radio station’s CEO Randi Steele.
WDST, operating under Chet-5 Broadcasting, filed a trademark lawsuit in U.S. District Court last April, alleging Woodstock 104, operating under Birds of a Feather Media Limited, violated the trademark Chet-5 holds for Radio Woodstock and Woodstock Radio. It argued that having another radio station in Woodstock with Woodstock in its name would cause brand confusion. Broadcasting at 100.1 FM, WDST calls itself Radio Woodstock on air, on its website and in all its advertising and graphics.
After a year and a half with no prospect of a settlement, U.S. District Judge Frederick J. Scullin Jr. granted Chet-5’s motion to dismiss the lawsuit “with prejudice,” meaning the trademark infringement complaint cannot be filed again.
The dismissal relieves enormous legal pressure for the small, low-power station operating as WIOF on 104.1 FM and broadcasting a mix of live, local public-affairs programming and syndicated shows such as Democracy Now with Amy Goodman.
Michael Cornman, a trademark attorney for Ladas & Perry LLC, who represented Birds of a Feather pro bono, considers the matter settled. “It’s a big victory for Randi. A commercial station took on a tiny little station, pushed them around and didn’t succeed,” said Cornman, who added he defended Woodstock 104 as a service to the people of Woodstock. Cornman said he’s done his part, but the next step is to hope town officials do the right thing.
The town’s involvement started and ended last February, when Steele proposed allowing the public access station Channel 23 to simulcast Woodstock 104 audio when there was no television programming. The town could fill large gaps in its schedule with content and Steele would get more exposure for the new radio station.
Citing the risk of legal exposure, the Town Board put the proposal on indefinite hold when it received an email from WDST General Manager Richard Fusco about pending trademark issues.
Supervisor Jeremy Wilber said while he has reservations about giving all the unused airtime to one station, he’ll leave it up to the rest of the board if they want to revisit it.
The dismissal further stifles all claims and counterclaims and stipulates that both parties will bear their own costs, something that has become a thorny issue with Steele.
“He (Cornman) did that without my consent,” Steele said of the cost stipulation. While Cornman worked pro bono, resulting in minimal legal costs, Steele said she was left with damages to her reputation and relationship with the town.
“(WDST owner Gary) Chetkof filed a bogus lawsuit. We knew it was bogus from the beginning. The intent was to hobble our ability to broadcast,” Steele said. “The lawsuit was brought with malice toward our ability to exist.”
Steele said she never thought of Woodstock 104 as competition, but instead as a complement to WDST’s programming. Woodstock 104 has the ability to broadcast live updates of public safety information during emergencies in the middle of the night, a time when WDST’s programming is usually automated, notes Steele. But the relaying of important safety information is made more difficult by Steele’s fractured ties with town officials.
Fusco’s February 2015 email “singlehandedly damaged our relationship with the Town Board,” Steele said, further noting the Town Board “acted in a way to convict me of a bogus charge without giving me the opportunity to defend myself.”
While Steele is glad to be able to operate freely under the Woodstock 104 name without the constant looming legal pressure, she still wants to pursue damages to offset what she perceives as her sullied reputation.
Just trying to defend our trademark
Chet-5’s lead counsel William H. Oldach III did not return phone messages seeking comment. Fusco opted not to comment, saying WDST would rather move on with its business than get involved any further. While the lawsuit was still pending, Fusco denied any malice behind the action, asserting WDST was simply defending its trademarks and pointing out it could lose them if it couldn’t demonstrate it was being proactive.
WDST had said it had no problem with Woodstock 104 operating, as long as it changed its name. WDST offered to provide suggestions, but Steele asserted her right, saying WDST can’t hold a trademark on a geographical name.
Outstanding trademark issues
Some Woodstock public access TV producers filed motions to intervene in the case, noting WDST’s trademarks may prohibit Channel 23 from using Woodstock in its name or on its website, stifling free speech. The case was dismissed without those motions being granted.
“I believe Chetkof had a very sinister plan for controlling the use of Woodstock for radio, TV, or anything electronic,” Steele said.