From the editor Featured

10:03am EDT July 22, 2002

You probably thought the story about Chuck Gentile, the photographer who wanted to sell unlicensed posters of the Rock Hall, was resolved. Last most of us heard, the restraining order against Gentile had been overturned.

In fact, the story is alive and well and looking more like David and Goliath every day. The Rock Hall is still pursuing him on the grounds of trademark infringement, and Gentile still maintains he has a First Amendment right to sell photos of a publicly funded building.

Read it that way and you can't help but root for the little guy.

On the other hand, you have the ironic twists and turns of the public interest. While it can be argued the Rock Hall is a public building constructed with public funds (and if you say that to the Rock Hall's lawyers, you will, indeed, get an argument), it very well might be to our fiscal benefit if the trademark argument prevails, maximizing revenue to the Rock Hall itself.

The museum is still in a start-up state, which means it's still trying to figure out its revenue stream. According to the museum's first annual report, (made public only recently in what I interpret to be acknowledgement of public pressure for some small level of accountability to the community that has a very large stake in its success), the place is running at break-even if you don't count a few niggling little line items-such as bond repayments and legal fees-that add up to several million dollars.

If there is any financial exposure to the local government and the general public, it's in the area of the publicly backed bonds used to build the place.

Does that make the building a public structure? It didn't, as you'll learn in John Ettorre's cover story this month, when a group of Native Americans was denied permission to protest Chief Wahoo in the similarly financed plaza of Jacobs Field.

But such court opinions might quickly change if the Rock Hall were to fall behind on debt service and the county entity that underwrote the bonds was called on to make payment.

And if the building were ruled to be a public facility, then nobody could stop Gentile, or anyone else, from making money off its likeness.

The problem? That's the very time when it's in all our best interest to help the Rock Hall maximize revenue.

There is another level to this story, and it too contains no small amount of irony. Before he started selling his posters, Gentile did, in fact, offer to pay royalties to the Rock Hall. The response he received was as arrogant and disinterested as you might expect from the high and mighty and out of touch.

If the executives at the museum had only listened to Gentile's voice, they might have heard the roots of the very art form they are trying to memorialize.

But they apparently had bigger things on their minds than a small-time freelance photographer from Cleveland. They had sponsorships to sell; international superstars to entertain; T-shirts to hawk.

Just like the NBA (someone suggested it stands for No Basketball Anywhere) has learned, when the money gets bigger than the mission, bad things start to happen. And that may be the biggest lesson in this story.

So now, the Rock Hall and Chuck Gentile find themselves heading toward a final showdown that seems most likely to take place in the Supreme Court.

In true David-and-Goliath fashion, Gentile began his defense without a lawyer or any financial support, and the Rock Hall seemed determined to crush him with corporate clout.

The final irony of this case is that regardless of the outcome, the Rock Hall can ill afford it.

Bob Rosenbaum can be reached at (216) 529-8486, or by e-mail at brosenbaum@sbnnet.com.