In an all-out brawl within the environmental industrial complex, last week the American Society of Landscape Architects filed a lawsuit over the ownership of the trademark for the Sustainable Sites Initiative (SITES) against the Lady Bird Johnson Wildlife Center at the University of Texas.

The University actually threw the first punch on June 11th when it filed U.S.  Trademark Application 85/952,773 to register “The Sustainable Sites Initiative” trademark and filed other associated applications including to register the “SITES” trademark, claiming sole and exclusive ownership of the marks. 

The complaint filed in state court in Travis County, Texas is a request for declaratory judgment and mandamus relief claiming the University unlawfully attempted to claim ownership of the trademarks that do not belong to it. The Sustainable Sites Initiative is an unincorporated nonprofit association (or de facto general partnership) whose members are The American Society of Landscape Architects, Inc. and The American Society of Landscape Architects’ Library and Education Advocacy Fund, Inc., the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center at University of Texas at Austin, and the United States Botanic Garden.

Working collaboratively in a partnership that became known as "The Sustainable Sites Initiative," the parties jointly developed a site sustainability rating system similar to the U.S. Green Building Council’s LEED rating system.

The SITES Rating System is a voluntary set of guidelines and performance benchmarks to assess the planning, design, construction, and maintenance of sustainable landscapes. SITES has a close working relationship with the USGBC. Almost half of the prerequisites and credits in SITES are based in part on credits in LEED NC or LEED ND, and some of the SITES Guidelines and Performance Benchmarks 2009 have been incorporated into LEED v4.

Additionally, some see the litigation as an unfortunate distraction with the release of SITES v2 and the beginning of open project certification scheduled for later this year.

The University said in a statement, it “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.” The University is respected across the environmental community, including that the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center Native Plant Database is the gold standard for selecting native plantings and often a key best practice in landscape plans qualifying for LEED credits.

The reaction of the USGBC is typical of others in the environmental community who look for the parties to reach an amicable resolution, “USGBC has supported the objectives of the SITES program since its inception and we hope for a quick resolution.”

The complaint is a cautionary tale about the pitfalls of not having a written agreement to protect valuable intellectual property.