Adages: Up for grabs? Cat fight over a cat house; branding the oldest profession

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The Mustang Ranch is no more, but the brand lives on thanks to Oscar Williams, a freelance movie producer who says he acquired the brothel's name and recently hired Bell Licensing to give it a makeover.

"Through consultations with retailers, we're looking at what teenagers and our target audience of 18- to 34-year-olds want to buy," says Jim Bell, president of the Norwalk, Connecticut shop that hopes to license the brand to makers of lunch boxes, T-shirts, hats, jewelry, lingerie, prophylactics and leather goods.

Adages has learned, however, that the U.S. government also has a stake in the brand. Last week, the Bureau of Land Management auctioned the buildings of the main ranch on eBay as well as "the government's rights in the Mustang Ranch business," the eBay description read (item number: 2351799450). That included "remaining goodwill and the `World-Famous Mustang Ranch' trademark so closely connected to this world-famous pink structure." The final bid for the package was $145,100. A quitclaim deed to the property and trademark is expected to change hands this week.

"The government has defended the trademark in the market for brothels, adult entertainment and escort services," read the eBay item, "but the purchaser will assume the responsibility for any further defense of the trademark." Apparently, the chivalrous Feds not only defend our freedoms; they're also in the business of safeguarding the good names of whorehouses.

A little history lesson is in order. The Mustang Ranch has been called the first legalized bordello in the country, licensed in 1971. It paved the way for legalization of prostitution in parts of Nevada. The federal government seized the Mustang Ranch in 1999 after owner Joe Conforte was found guilty of racketeering and bankruptcy fraud by a U.S. District Court jury. Joe split for Brazil, and the government unsuccessfully tried to extradite him in the 1990s. Uncle Sam earlier sold buildings from a Mustang Ranch annex (on eBay) to Dennis Hof, who owns a competing brothel, the Moonlite Bunny Ranch. Mr. Hof paid over eight grand for the annex and plans to move it and make it into a museum. He also bid on the main ranch, but lost to an unknown bidder. Mr. Hof also claimed ownership of the ranch name: "We filed for the trademark and are allowed to use it for sexual purposes." He added that the new ranch owners "probably bought themselves a quarter-million dollar legal battle."

Will the real steward of the bordello brand please stand up?

"We own the right to use the Mustang Ranch logo and trademark," said Elaine Briggs, a Bureau of Land Management spokesperson in Carson City, Nevada, before the eBay auction closed last week. "We say we own it, we've talked to our attorneys about it and we are supported by them."

According to Mr. Bell, his client, Mr. Williams, is the rightful owner of the U.S. trademark. "The [Bureau] never protected the name and it was abandoned," said Jim. "They never even applied for the rights after they were abandoned. My client did, and we have documentation. Our plan of action has been to let whoever buys the buildings try to operate it under the Mustang Ranch name and we'll go after them and let them go after the government."

Mr. Williams told Adages last week: "I'm not into the brothel business, I'm a producer and aspiring writer." He met Joe Conforte once. "Two years ago I went down to Rio de Janeiro and spent two weeks at his residence. He's a difficult person to work with." Mr. Williams, who lives in Reno, not far from the original Mustang, hopes to write a novel about the ranch someday. In the meantime, he plans to make money off the name.

Mr. Williams suggested that the only way Uncle Sam could have held the trademark without registering it was by keeping the brothel in continuous operation after they seized it. "They haven't done anything with it but mow the lawn," he said.

How does the Bureau feel about being a whoremonger?

"This is certainly something new for the Bureau of Land Management," said Ms. Briggs. " It's a first for our office anyway."

Send your pillow talk to rlinnett@crain.com

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