When it comes to green building rating systems, the majority of the debate this year has been over the impending changes to LEED with the launch of LEED Version 4 (v4) in a few weeks at Greenbuild in Philadelphia. However, as the tension around v4 seems to be easing slightly, the grass is looking decidedly less greener for the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) program.
A voluntary rating system for the sustainable design, construction, and maintenance of sites and landscapes, SITES was lunched in 2009 under the Sustainable Sites Initiative, a partnership between the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at the University of Texas (UT) at Austin, and the U.S. Botanic Garden. According to the SITES website, to date 23 projects have received pilot certification, and the two-year pilot phase of the program closed in June 2012.
But things don't seem to be progressing toward full bloom, according to Stuart Kaplow's recent post on the Green Building Law Update. It appears that ASLA and UT are at legal odds over the SITES trademarks.
Two weeks ago, the ASLA filed a legal challenge in a Texas state court requesting judgment that the University of Texas unlawfully attempted to claim ownership of the SITES trademarks via a U.S. trademark application filed by the school in June. In its complaint, ASLA has requested a court order requiring the UT filings to be withdrawn.
The dispute over the trademarks arose earlier this year, according to a release from ASLA:
Despite joint development of the trademarks and the parties’ oft-stated joint ownership of all SITES intellectual property, UT took it upon itself to file applications for registration of the trademarks in the name of the University of Texas Board of Regents. This unilateral action was undertaken over the strenuous objection of ASLA. Upon being pressed for the basis for its action, UT has taken the position that it is the sole and exclusive owner of the trademarks. This assertion is factually and legally wrong and cannot stand. In an effort to avoid legal action, ASLA has made numerous attempts to resolve the issue with the Wildflower Center and UT leadership and legal counsel. However, UT has refused to withdraw the trademark filings and reconsider its claim of sole ownership.
The association concludes by noting, "We regret the need to take this action. We look forward to a quick resolution and a successful rollout of SITEs v2."
In response to the ASLA filing, UT issued a statement noting that "UT has never had a formal partnership or any legal agreement with ASLA, despite our efforts over the past two years to develop one." This, in itself, seems surprising for a project that was in development for four years prior to the launch of the two-year pilot program.
The university also asserted that "UT initially considered registering the trademark jointly with ASLA and the U.S. Botanic Garden, but this was not feasible for a variety of legal reasons. Instead, UT sought to register the trademark in its name and then license all the rights associated with the trademark to ASLA at no cost and with no restrictions. Our intention was to grant a permanent license to ASLA that would essentially convey rights identical to the rights owned by UT. The U.S. Botanic Garden agreed to this arrangement, ASLA did not."
The UT statement goes on to say the school "has never and is not now trying to limit or withhold ASLA’s use of the SITES trademark."
What this escalating disagreement means for the rollout of the next version of SITES—v2, which was slated to be finalized and released this fall—has yet to be formally addressed by either party.