Born to Be Defiled

"Every cabbage," Frenchman Jean Giraudoux once wrote, "has its pimp." Given the absurd mutterings Giraudoux inflicted upon his characters, the line passed as little more than fanciful. Surely the playwright could never have anticipated the true-life biker corollary to his queer pronouncement: Every hog must have its trademark attorney.

At least that's how the honchos at Harley-Davidson headquarters want it. Just ask Steve Gissen. The founder of Miami's Hog Heaven, Gissen was informed earlier this year that he was going to have to change the name of his Bird Road motorcycle parts and accessory store, because the word "hog" is a Harley-Davidson trademark.

The letter was but one salvo in a wide-ranging trademark crackdown that has driven a wedge between Harley-Davidson and its network of independent dealers. "Now that Harley's riding the wave, they think they're invincible," says Gissen, one of several South Florida independents gunning his engine in disgust. "They've come up with all these rules and regulations because basically they want the whole pie."

Along with the hog embargo, company officials have ordered that independent retailers not print store slogans on the back of licensed Harley-Davidson T-shirts, and that they refrain from advertising as a "Harley-Davidson" any reconditioned motorcycle that is not 100 percent Harley-Davidson.

So far the trademark war has spawned some 455 investigations and at least 30 lawsuits nationwide, says Bill Woods, Jr., manager of the Milwaukee-based company's trademark enforcement division. But Woods insists nailing trademark violators is nothing new for Harley-Davidson. "We have accelerated our prosecution of trademark counterfeiters recently. But trademark enforcement is something we've emphasized for years," he says. "It's just that now there seems to be more publicity about our efforts."

Clay Douglas would be glad to hear that. A mountain of a man who has ridden Harleys since he was a teen-ager, Douglas publishes Rider's eXchange, a new Miami-based hogzine that has printed two pieces excoriating Harley-Davidson for its perceived trademark tyranny.

"All my life I've supported Harley-Davidson," Douglas says. "But I can't go along with these totalitarian tactics. They're hurting the 6000 independent stores that promote Harleys, and in the end it's going to come back to haunt them."

A former street rider who has more than doubled the size and circulation of Rider's in six months, Douglas still favors denim and leather to traditional publishing garb and lords over his desktop operation with a beeper on one hip and a Buck knife on the other. Like others who oppose Harley-Davidson's heavy-handed regulation, Douglas says the company's current hubris belies its rocky fiscal history.

The lore-laden American outfit came into its own during the post-World War II boom, when movies like The Wild One, and later, Easy Rider, established Harleys as the ultimate in phallic power machines. But by the Seventies, inexpensive and dependable Japanese cycles had invaded the U.S. market, and Harley-Davidson profits shriveled. The company flirted with collapse for a decade, before a corporate buyout in 1980. The new management resuscitated sales through an aggressive advertising campaign, and over the past few years, the upswing in rebel posing, led by movie stars such as Miami homeboy Mickey Rourke, has spurred a run on Harley-Davidson cycles and all varieties of Harley-ana.

And, Douglas would assert, provoked a leap in corporate avarice. "The idea that Harley-Davidson would force independents like Hog Heaven to change their name is just silly. `Hog' is just a slang word for a big motorcycle. Besides, Hog Heaven has been around since 1977. Harley-Davidson only registered `Hog' as a trademark in 1983."

Likewise, the prohibition on back-printing T-shirts has rankled Harley-Davidson merchandisers. "People travel all over the world to buy Harley T-shirts and the reason they pick them up is not just the Harley name, but to show what shops they visited," says Ish Santiago, owner of Wings of Steel, a South Beach shop that peddles Harley-Davidson accessories. "These are shirts we've paid for, anyway. Harley has already gotten their royalty. This is just more free advertising for them."

But it's a form of advertising that the company simply does not desire. "We have to be concerned with the affiliation of the independent merchant and our company through the sale of the shirts," says trademark czar Bill Woods, cautiously. "Harley-Davidson, as the owner of the trademark, is required to control usage of the trademark until the product is in the consumer's hands. We would have a concern, for instance, if someone covered the back of our shirts with things like blood, or sex, or violence, or a skull and crossbones."

Or, in other words, all the racy trappings in which Harley-Davidson's mystique has long been draped.

Most galling for Santiago, whose shop also specializes in customizing work, was the three-page letter he received in February from an attorney representing Harley-Davidson. "If your client does not use all Harley-Davidson parts in rebuilding and reconditioning these motorcycles," the missive read in part, "then the Harley-Davidson trademarks must be removed from the motorcycles, and they may not be advertised as Harley-Davidson motorcycles."

"That's like saying that if I put Champion spark plugs on a Harley, it's no longer a Harley," scoffs Santiago, adding that he and other independent shop owners already have discussed forming a coalition to repeal such measures.

Wood admits the letter to Wings was bit extreme. "But," he says, "we do have a legitimate concern about merchants who recondition a motorcycle and then offer it without disclosing the use of generic motorcycle parts in place of authorized parts. Consumers might not be getting what they pay for.

"This is so delicate," Woods adds, almost audibly squirming. "I don't think you can give a good answer to some of these questions. We are going to ruffle some feathers. But the larger issue is that we have to protect our trademarks vigorously and uniformly or Harley-Davidson will go the way of products like aspirin or escalator and become just a generic name. There are always going to be riders who don't understand trademark protection. But there is no middle ground on this; we either protect or lose."

Maverick publisher Clay Douglas says this notion may be the loopiest of all. "Harley-Davidsons are not ever going to become generic. That's simply impossible. A Harley doesn't ever stop being a Harley, even if you replace every damn part on the bike. People still look at the engine and go, `Oh yeah, it's a Harley.' Harley's job should be making motorcycles, not policing the industry that's sprung up around them."

If company execs do not heed his words, Douglas warns, they run two risks: permanently alienating the independent shop owners who fueled Harley-Davidson through the lean years; and, more important, frittering away the image that they have spent so long cultivating. After all, he asks, just how much allure will a Harley-Davidson motorcycle or T-shirt or key chain hold if the name itself comes to represent petty legalistic bickering, rather than bad-ass, American-built road monsters


All-access pass to the top stories, events and offers around town.

  • Top Stories


All-access pass to top stories, events and offers around town.

Sign Up >

No Thanks!

Remind Me Later >