Photographer files suit over 'Portland Oregon' sign fee
PORTLAND — A Portland photographer has asked a judge to strike down an ordinance that allows the city to charge companies a fee for using its iconic "Portland Oregon" sign perched above Old Town.
Jeff Kunkle, owner of Vintage Roadside, a small business that has sold photographs of the neon sign for $25 to $40 on Esty.com, said he received a trademark violation letter from the city attorney's office in May for photos he took of an older version of the sign.
The city took ownership of the sign in 2010 and trademarked it with the state in 2011. The city charges businesses $100 to $20,000 for using the sign for "any sort of commercial purpose, such as licensing, filming or photography," according to Kunkle's lawsuit filed last week in Multnomah County Circuit Court.
He said he isn't seeking any money and just wants the city to back off its trademark claim and stop charging businesses. He contends the city improperly trademarked the sign because it's not an image used to denote goods or products.
"I've photographed signs all across the country and most people are happy to see their signs photographed because it's great publicity," Kunkle said.
Months ago, Kunkle heard the city was going to go after photographers on Etsy. So he said he stopped selling images of the current sign that reads "Portland Oregon," but kept selling photos he took before 2010 when it read "Made in Oregon."
The city didn't own the sign before then, and Kunkle said he's baffled that the city is trying to charge him a fee for using an image of a sign it didn't own.
It's unclear how much the city claims Vintage Roadside must pay. A city fee table says businesses that make less than $100,000 are required to pay $100.
"It seems kind of puzzling that the city would invest the time and the resources in trying to track down people who they claim owe $100," Kunkle said. "It seems like a poor return on investment."
As least three big companies — Pabst Blue Ribbon, Widmer Brothers Brewing and Uber — have received cease-and-desist letters from the city for using the sign in some way.
A deputy city attorney assigned to the issue couldn't be reached for comment. The city, however, normally doesn't comment on pending litigation.
The sign stands on the west end of the Burnside Bridge. It was erected in 1940, advertising "White Satin Sugar." The sign was changed in 1959 to advertise White Stag, a sportswear maker. A tradition of illuminating a red light on the tip of the stag's nose each Christmas season followed.
In 1977, the sign was designated a historic landmark.