Tension is rising among Charlottesville’s already competitive cab drivers, especially now that UVA students, who make up the bulk of their business, are gone for the summer. You may have noticed a recent influx of cars on the road with the words Yellow Cab painted on the side, but look closely—the cars differ in color, the phone numbers aren’t the same, and they most certainly are not part of the same company.
It’s been less than two years since Main Street Arena co-owner Mark Brown shook up the local taxi industry by buying Yellow Cab of Charlottesville and revamping the fleet with new silver hybrid cars, card swipe machines, and GPS trackers. Independent cab companies in town and some Yellow Cab drivers were not pleased by the new arrangement. They worried that Brown was biting off more than he could chew and letting customer service fall to the wayside with the development of the electronic booking system. Since taking over the company, Brown has battled with others in the industry about exclusive rights to the Amtrak station and Charlottesville Albemarle Airport, and now he’s eying a new fleet of cars on the road, all of which are yellow and feature the phrase “Yellow Cab” on the sides. The name similarity is confusing for customers, he said, and he’s baffled that a business owner would knowingly create what he believes is market confusion and get away with it.
“They’re clearly trying to impersonate us,” Brown said, noting that the city regulates cab companies and questioning the decision to allow two businesses with similar names. “It’s a nuisance, and I’m surprised the city would go along with it.”
The cars bearing a name and logo similar to Brown’s are operated under the name Yellow Cab Company. The five-car fleet is owned by Dan Goff, who also owns AGoff Limousine & Bus Company, which operates between Washington, D.C. and the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and the popular upscale Virginia-to-New-York bus service Starlight Express. Goff’s been in the transportation business since the 1970s, and he said his family’s goal has always been to bring big city service to places like Charlottesville.
“I have deep, deep roots in passenger transportation, and we understand guest service,” Goff said. “We bring quality management to small towns.”
As for the name confusion, Goff said it’s a non-issue. The name isn’t trademarked, and he noted that in Virginia alone there are hundreds of cab companies that use the name Yellow Cab.
“The name ‘yellow cab’ is descriptive of a service,” Goff said. “I think people understand intuitively that the company name Yellow Cab does not connect companies in the same city, county, state, country, or planet, with any shared ownership or shared relationship.”
Regardless of trademark, Brown said the name similarity causes unnecessary confusion, and fears it’s giving his company and drivers a bad rap. His biggest concern is that customers who may not know the difference between the two companies will have a positive experience with his Yellow Cab and credit it to Goff’s company, or have a negative experience with the competitor and blame Yellow Cab of Charlottesville. Brown said his dispatchers have been getting calls from Goff’s company asking if Yellow Cab of Charlottesville can send a driver to pick up a customer that they’re too busy to service. Brown worries that if a customer calls company A, and gets a ride from company B without being informed of the discrepancy, the customer is likely to continue calling company A in the future, even though it was actually company B that provided the service that made the customer want to come back.
John Amato, a long-time cab driver who works under Goff, said Brown’s concerns about customer confusion are unfounded.
“There’s no real loyalty unless you’re a regular, and if you’re a regular, you’re going to call one particular driver all the time, not a company,” Amato said. “When it comes down to it, honestly people don’t care about the name. They care about the service.”
Chief Deputy City Attorney Lisa Robinson declined to comment on the issue, but a similar dispute between local cab companies made its way to the U.S. District Court in Harrisonburg in 2007, and the lawsuit doesn’t bode well for Brown if he’s considering legal action.
Previous Yellow Cab of Charlottesville owners Jay and Becky Graves fought and lost the same battle when they sued cab drivers William Rocha, Jonathan Rocha, and Theodore Smith for operating businesses with the words “yellow cab” in the names. The Graves claimed that they were the lawful owners in the Charlottesville Albemarle area of all rights in and to the “yellow cab” trade name, and that the defendants were violating the Lanham Act’s prohibition of unfair competition. But the court found that the public “will not be harmed by preserving the status quo pending a final outcome of this case,” and the Graves’ motion for an injunction was denied.
If a lawsuit is on the way, Goff said he’s not worried.
“Before we even started, I talked to a copyright-oriented law professor at UVA,” Goff said. “He laughed and said ‘You don’t need a legal opinion. You’ve got no risk there at all.’”