What does the word “Gasparilla” mean to people?
Is it a parade of pirates firing cannons and hurling beads at hundreds of thousands of screaming partiers in Tampa? Or does it describe an entire season of Gasparilla events, including a music festival, a film fest, a half marathon and a college bowl game? Maybe it’s just a beautiful barrier island off southwest Florida.
Several cases currently before the federal Trademark Trial and Appeal Board will provide an answer, at least as the U.S. government is concerned.
More importantly, that panel of federal judges, 900 miles from Saturday’s mayhem and old-Tampa pageantry on Bayshore Boulevard, could decide who legally owns the right to do business as “Gasparilla." And it will decide who has the right to tell others they can’t use the Gasparilla name, at least not without permission or without forking over some doubloons.
That winner could be Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla, the elite, all-male, social club that has organized Tampa’s massive pirate festival since 1904. The krewe filed to trademark “Gasparilla” in 2016. Their application was initially denied. Ye Mystic Krewe appealed and the case is on hold.
After 113 years, someone else got to the treasure first.
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They wear sparkly gowns, sashes and tiaras, and go out into the community to promote charity and community service as “young ladies of good character,” said Stephanie Sims.
Since the 1990s, the Weeki Wachee resident and South Tampa native has organized the small and somewhat obscure Gasparilla Pageant, which crowns a Ms. Gasparilla, Teen Miss Gasparilla and sometimes a Gasparilla Mermaid Queen. In 2008, Sims filed to federally trademark “Gasparilla." It was approved. She also owns gasparilla.com.
In July, Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla filed a petition to cancel Sims’ trademark. In court documents, they accuse her of committing fraud by even registering it in the first place.
Sims told the Tampa Bay Times she never intended to plunder the Gasparilla name. She just wanted to protect her pageant from impostor pageants. She said her friend, late Ye Mystic Krewe executive director Jim Tarbet, encouraged her to file.
Sims has never tried to stop anyone from using the name and never would, she said, unless they were using it specifically for a pageant. She also stressed that she respects Ye Mystic Krewe and believes they do good in the community.
“But I’m embarrassed and hurt at the wording they used," she said. “Fraud. It really jabs at me. I have daughters and granddaughters. I’m not just going to let them see me lose.”
She has received calls from people seeking permission to use “Gasparilla,” but tells them she only uses it for her pageant. Once, she said, America’s Got Talent producers contacted her through the website, seeking costumed pirates at auditions in Tampa. She used her contacts to help.
In 2012, she said, a government purchasing office contacted her because Admiral William McRaven, commander of U.S. Special Operations Command in Tampa, wanted to present a Gasparilla-themed gift to a VIP guest at the base. She said she called Ye Mystic Krewe, which had nothing available for purchase, so she had a custom engraved paperweight made. The VIP turned out to be then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
Ye Mystic Krewe’s lawyer Dean Kent approached her about a year ago and was ready to enter into an agreement that would let both parties use “Gasparilla," she said. She was happy to change her trademark to the more specific “Gasparilla Pageant.”
The lawyer offered her a licensing agreement instead, she said. She would license the name from them, admitting they own it and have a say over how she uses it.
“I’m a small fish. The main reason they want me out of the way is so they can pursue other things they’ve got going," Sims said. “They intend to strike up some kind of licensing or sponsorship deal with every entity that is using Gasparilla, but as of right now they don’t own the word to be able to do that, so out of the blue, they’ve come out with this desire to cancel me. They’ve had 10 years to dispute it.”
In May, Ye Mystic Krewe also filed a petition to cancel the trademark “Gasparilla Concours d’Elegance,” a classic car show at Curtis Hixon Waterfront Park. They also accused that applicant, Gasparilla Concours founder Joanne Pistorius, of fraud. The document says the car show’s name could cause brand confusion with the Gasparilla parade because of their similarity — both involve cars.
“They sent me a licensing agreement,” Pistorius said. “It made me laugh. From my point of view, their lawyer was trying to make it seem like they own the name and they do not.” Documents submitted to the trademark board show that the krewe’s licensing contract asked the car show for $200 a year to license the name for five years.
“But at the end of five years, they can say, ‘Okay, now it’s $1 million.’" Pistorius said. "And what can you do?”
Both women say they can’t afford a lawyer in the matter and have been filing their responses themselves.
Sandi Lake, an event planner who last year worked with the Rotary Club in Tampa to organize a charity event called the Gasparilla Ball, said the krewe sent her a cease and desist letter to stop using the name.
“I want to make it explicitly clear that I respect Ye Mystic Krewe and have utmost respect for them,” she said. “But everyone should be able to use that name.”
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The first Gasparilla we know of was the barrier island near the mouth of Charlotte Harbor on Florida’s east coast. It appears on maps as far back as 1774, years before the pirate Jose Gaspar supposedly arrived there. Some historians think Gasparilla Island was named for a Spanish priest who worked at a mission there.
Then came the pirate Gaspar, who almost certainly didn’t exist and was likely concocted by an old fishing guide to entertain his customers. Legend says Gaspar wrapped his anchor chain around his ankles and jumped into the ocean to die rather than be captured by the U.S. Navy. The myth was put into writing in a marketing pamphlet for a railroad company and later copied into books as a true story.
“If Ye Mystic Krewe had opposed this right when Sims first filed for it, it probably would have been a slam dunk,” said David Barman, a professor of business law at Florida International University and registered patent attorney who is not involved with the case. “This many years later, part of the analysis is going to be, what took you so long?
“That doesn’t mean the krewe isn’t going to win. They have a lawyer and are willing to throw money at it. They’re saying Gasparilla’s first use in commerce goes back to 1904, that they made it famous. (Sims) being from Tampa makes it more telling. Their argument could be, how could you not know this was ours?”
Then again, he said, sometimes a word becomes so common that the trademark loses the strength it had at one time, like with Xerox or Aspirin.
“Nissan spent years trying to get nissan.com from an electronics company and an enormous amount of people started sending the electronics company money to fight it," he said.
Ye Mystic Krewe did not answer specific questions. Krewe captain Richard M. Chapman emailed a statement to the Times:
“Over the years, the Krewe has worked with organizers associated with certain events seeking to use the Gasparilla brand ... . However, more and more organizations have started to use the name. To prevent dilution of the goodwill developed by (Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla) and to prevent confusion with events promoted by (Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla) since 1904, the Krewe has recently undertaken trademark efforts simply to protect the Gasparilla name for use in appropriate community events.”
Ye Mystic Krewe of Gasparilla organized and grew Tampa’s pirate festival into a true spectacle. They were the only Gasparilla in town for 50 years. Then, the Gasparilla Festival of the Arts was founded in 1970, followed soon after by the Gasparilla Distance Classic run.
Recent years brought the Gasparilla International Film Fest and Gasparilla Music Festival. The Gasparilla Criterium bicycle race and a tech conference called Gasparilla Interactive Festival came and went. Maybe you haven’t yet heard of the Gasparilla International Food Festival, the Gasparilla SUP (stand-up paddleboarding) Invasion or Gasparilla Roller Derby, but they’re out there. Florida Department of State records show more than 100 entities have used the name Gasparilla.
The krewe always appeared tolerant and informal about the growing number of Gasparillas. In 2015, the Tampa Business Journal quoted Darrell Stefany, president of Eventfest, which works closely with Ye Mystic Krewe to produce the parade.
“They say plagiarism is the highest form of flattery,” he said. "As long as anyone who does that stuff celebrates it and does it right, I’m okay with it.”
Bad Boy Mowers Gasparilla Bowl executive director Scott Glaser said ESPN asked the Krewe first, “because we felt like it was the right thing to do.” Often, new events didn’t ask.
“I was told that no one owned the name," said Tash Johnson, who runs the food festival. "That anyone could use it. ... It’s just a word that gets people excited in Tampa. It helps us promote Tampa and lets people know our flavor.”
“I think (Ye Mystic Krewe) are a wonderful group of people who do a lot for our community, but I don’t think the regular members know what’s really going on," Pistorius said. “It’s just an overzealous lawyer or something. We’re both nonprofit 501c3s. All we want to do with the Gasparilla Concours is buy some wheelchairs and prosthetics for kids. I don’t think they’d want to stop that.”
She believes the word Gasparilla “absolutely belongs to everyone.”
“It’s a geographic location,” she said. “It’s merely a descriptive word. And Ye Mystic Krewe didn’t invent the Jose Gaspar legend.”