THEY are Scotland’s remotest islands and home to thousands of seabirds and little else. Not much has happened on the St Kilda chain since the last human inhabitants fled their harsh and unforgiving way of life in 1930.
But picturesque St Kilda is now at the centre of an acrimonious dispute which has all the hallmarks of the 21st century. The owner, the National Trust for Scotland, is pursuing legal action against Western Isles Council, which wants to own potentially lucrative trademarks in the name of the famous archipelago.
Comhairle nan Eilean Siar – the council’s Gaelic name – intends to capitalise on the huge global interest surrounding St Kilda by overseeing the production and licensing of merchandise and services relating to the islands.
With its dramatic and romantic history, the Unesco World Heritage Site has been the inspiration for a wide range of goods and events, from clothing and books, through to opera productions, and it has paid more than £1,000 to apply for EC trademark applications.
Ownership of the St Kilda name would give it EU-wide rights over products such as computer software, maps, diaries, cruises and even restaurants and bars, and the ability to charge private companies a licensing fee for any island-affiliated products.
It has been backed by officials in the EU’s Office for Harmonization in the Internal Market (OHIM) after arguing its case and will this week help set up a group to market the islands.
However, the NTS fears that if the council wins the legal battle – which has now reached the European courts – the floodgates will be opened for any individual or company to “commercially exploit” the properties in its care. The trust argues that as it owns St Kilda, it is only “logical” that the trust should own the accompanying trademarks.
A spokeswoman explained: “The trust has appealed against this decision [by OHIM] to the European Court of First Instance. Since St Kilda is owned and cared for by the NTS it seems logical that any trademark would be too. The trust is also concerned that this decision could have the potential to set a precedent in relation to the many other iconic places in our care, which are important to all Scots, meaning that individuals or bodies who do not own the properties involved would have the exclusive rights to commercially exploit that name. Given that the trust is a charity, this would be far from ideal.”
The NTS has engaged law firm Shepherd and Wedderburn to fight its corner. It lodged the charity’s title deeds to St Kilda as part of its defence, along with existing products such as guidebooks, fleeces, towels and teddy bears.
However, OHIM rejected its appeal, stating that NTS had never sought to take out a trademark in the past to protect its interests. Matthew Dick, an associate with the London-based law firm Bristows, who specialises in trademark law, said: “On the one hand, you can see the point of NTS – if they own the place, surely they have the right. But the OHIM makes the distinction that just because you own the property, you don’t necessarily own the name.
“It’s a unique case and with the appeal, the case could not be settled for another two or three years. It’s not impossible to register geographic place names for certain goods and services, but just because you register it, it doesn’t give you a monopoly right over the word for everything. Hollywood is registered for chewing gum, while Mont Blanc is registered for pens and stationery.”
St Kilda’s remaining population left the islands in 1930 for new lives on the mainland after decades of decline. It was gifted to the trust in 1956 by the Marquess of Bute and it has since become a globally famous – but difficult to reach – tourist attraction because of its rugged scenery and seabird colonies.
But despite being ordered by the OHIM to pay costs and fees of around £1,600 following its failed appeal, the NTS – which continues to sell an array of books and DVDs relating to the islands situated 41 miles west of Benbecula – has decided to continue its battle in the European courts.
Shrugging aside the continuing legal action, the council will this week press ahead with plans to develop the brand, setting up a marketing co-operative to work alongside chosen private partners to “increase the economic benefits to be derived from the trademarks and their application”.
A spokesman for the council said: “The St Kilda name and story generates resonance and interest at an international level. The Comhairle’s ownership of the trademarks presents an opportunity to maximise the quality and consistency of the branding and messaging associated with St Kilda to a worldwide audience, for the benefit of the Outer Hebrides.”