What is an ultra-trail?

Recently, there has been a lot of discussion on the rather simple question “What is an ultra-trail?”. According to me the answer is simple: it is an ultra (i.e. a race longer than a marathon) which is also a trail. We might argue somewhat on the exact definition of a trail and probably there is no precise definition. But anyone will agree that is should avoid tarred roads as much as possible.

During the last years an increasing number of such races appeared and started to use the name. The last months things took a weird turn. On behalf of the organisers of the UTMB many organisers of races that used the notion “ultra-trail” (sometimes in the name of the race, sometimes only in the descriptions of the race) have received an invitation to take a licence for the use of the trademark “ultra-trail”. As it turns out the Trailers du Mont Blanc have registered the names “ultra-trail”, “ultra-trail du mont blanc”, “Ultra-trail CCC”, “UTMB” and “CCC”. At least in France, in Europe only “ultra-trail” is registered as a trademark since February 5th, 2009 (source: http://oami.europa.eu/CTMOnline/RequestManager/en_Detail_NoReg, search for number 006811079) and the trademark for “UTMB” is pending. In the US trademarks have been filed for both names, but seem to be refused (source: http://www.uspto.gov/main/trademarks.htm, use the search form).

Only days after the acceptance of the European trademark on “ultra-trail” the UTMB started to bother other organisations. Why would they do so? According to their own explanation they took the action to protect the purity of the ultra-trail and keep it out of the hand of commercially thinking companies. They are willing to provide a licence to use the trademark to races of at least 80K, in the nature, respecting the environment and not offering price money. This for the bare administration cost: EUR 250.

Frankly, when I heard this the first time, I was shocked. I thought the trail running scene was one friendly gang of runners, leaving each other the space they need. For the first time I saw a grim commercial battle in my beloved sport. Maybe I was plain naive, but even after a lot of thought I do have issues with the way things turned.

1. In my opinion the notion “ultra-trail” is just a generic name, as I described in my introduction. However, the UTMB claims to be the first to have introduced the name. So they might have rights to claim the name.

2. But connected to point 1, you have to protect a trademark to keep it. This is also the argument used (now in 2009), why they are asking EUR 250 for the licences, often from small organisations that already have enough troubles to make ends meet. So why didn’t they take any action over the past years? During those six years a lot of races started to use the name, even the FFA (French Athletics Federation) has since a few years a definition of “ultra-trail”. In my humble opinion they did not protect the trademark, but waited until it became a common designation. Why, if they want to protect the name as caring father, did they wait multiple years before contacting the first infringer of their trademark?

A few other issues remain unclear to me:
3. Did they invite the FFA to take a licence as well?
4. How is it possible that they invite a Spanish race to take a licence before January 16th (source) if there is only a European trademark from February 5th on?
5. Why are the PTL and TDS not ultra-trails? You will not find the word “ultra-trail” on any of the pages considering those races. Don’t those events need the protection that the UTMB seems to need?

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