The Last Best Place?
Friday, August 26, 2005
GREENOUGH, Mont. -- Rich guys have come west to shop. They have bought ranches with soul-stirring scenery and settled in -- usually for just a few weeks a year -- to savor what Montanans proudly call "The Last Best Place."
David Letterman has done it, as have Ted Turner, Tom Brokaw and thousands of non-celebrities. These high-net-worth interlopers have raised eyebrows and land values, but for the most part they have not raised hackles -- until this summer.
That's when word got out that David E. Lipson, a multimillionaire entrepreneur who was once chairman of Frederick's of Hollywood, the racy lingerie company, was not content with merely owning a big spread in Montana. He wants to trademark "The Last Best Place."
If Lipson has his way -- and six of his applications have been all but granted by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office -- his various companies would have exclusive commercial use of "The Last Best Place" as a brand name. The phrase could be used to sell anything -- real estate, footwear, maybe a fruit drink.
"It is a normal business practice," Lipson said over lunch at his 37,000-acre ranch, called Paws Up, here in the Blackfoot Valley. "You trademark your brands."
Lipson said he would not try to prevent the state of Montana from using "The Last Best Place" in tourist promotion and was merely seeking to protect his business interests from trademark infringement.
"We were amazed that all the rights to 'The Last Best Place' hadn't been trademarked," he said. "It was shocking."
Shock -- together with shoot-that-varmint anger -- is what many Montanans felt when they heard about Lipson's effort to lock up commercial use of a euphonious and wildly popular slogan he did not invent.
"We just don't like big shots coming from someplace else and claiming they own something they don't," said Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a rancher himself, as well as the first Democratic governor of Montana since 1988. "Who is he? The Wizard of Oz? We don't think he is the Wizard of Oz, and I sure as hell ain't the scarecrow!"
Lipson's reputation in Montana has taken a terrible pounding this summer. Local newspapers keep mentioning the $2.8 million fine he was ordered to pay in 2001 to resolve a Securities and Exchange Commission charge of insider trading in a case involving Supercuts, the nationwide haircut chain of which he was chief executive in the mid-1990s.
Articles also note that Lipson has been sued by a Great Falls contractor for allegedly not paying bills for work done at his ranch. And Lipson generated still more headlines in July when he was fined a record $210,000 by the state for opening a high-end guest resort at his ranch without proper licenses for water.
These public relations problems pale, however, in comparison with the populist rage that Lipson ignited with his maneuvers to corner the market on "The Last Best Place."