At first, Jessie Fream wasn’t sure she was reading the Facebook message correctly.
She received it several weeks ago from Jenny Odom, spokesperson for Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., asking Fream to stop using the words “BeltLine” and “Beltline” in the name of her Facebook group because the words are legally trademarked by ABI.
“It’s just such a shame,” Fream said. “The Beltline is a place where the community comes together; it’s a safe place for everyone. But now we can’t call it the Beltline anymore.”
This is not the first time ABI has told people to stop using using the word “Beltline,” citing their trademark of the word. They sued a realty group over use of the word and have sent out cease-and-desist letters to others, including Atlanta Loop’s owner, Decaturish.
Fream started her public Facebook group “Humans of the Atlanta BeltLine” about a year ago because she loved the “Humans of New York” movement. She chose to focus on the Beltline because it is a special place for her. She lives in Candler Park and runs or walks the Beltline frequently. She often sees the same people, and they say “hi” even though they don’t know each other’s names.
“The people out there become your Beltline neighbors; you belong to a community,” she said. “The Beltline gives you that breath of fresh air.”
So Fream, who always carries her phone with her on her runs, started taking pictures and interviewing people she sees on the Beltline. She asks dating couples how they met; she asks kids about their bikes and what they want to be when they grow up; she takes pictures of pets. She posts pictures of lost keys and tells people where they can find them.
In the last year, “Humans of the Atlanta BeltLine” has acquired more than 2,000 followers. People comment on the stories. Sometimes the comments turn into bigger discussions about the Beltline.
Fream doesn’t make any money from the page, but seeing the sense of community it creates and the joy it brings to people is well worth the effort she puts into it.
Until now. In the weeks since the Facebook message from Odom, Fream has continued to post stories, and she hasn’t changed the name. She isn’t sure what she will do. She feels like she has done something wrong, and she doesn’t want to cause trouble.
But her page is about the Atlanta Beltline and she isn’t sure what else to call it. Maybe the-22-mile-trail-that-circles-Atlanta. Or a sidewalk, in a nod to The New York Times recently calling it a “glorified sidewalk.”
Once Fream interviewed a man who said “It’s just a f$%!ing sidewalk – but it is awesome.” Fream loved his comment and is thinking about starting a campaign call it that.
Fream said she admires and respects ABI for the work they have done in creating the Beltline. In the past, she invited both Ryan Gravel, the person behind the initial idea, and Paul Morris, the CEO of ABI, to have beers on the Beltline with a group of friends. Both men accepted the invitations, and she enjoyed getting to meet them. She understands ABI has legal concerns they have to protect, but not allowing people to use the name “Beltline” seems ridiculous.
“Either we as a community are going to have to change what we call it, or they (ABI) are going to have to change their name,” Fream said. “I’m just trying to do something that brings joy to people.”
In response to an email asking about ABI’s guidelines for using the word Beltline, Nina Hickson, ABI Vice President and General Counsel, wrote, “BELTLINE® and ATLANTA BELTLINE® are registered trademarks owned by Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (“ABI”). Use of BELTLINE® or ATLANTA BELTLINE® as the name of a business, product or service or as other indicia of source without authorization from ABI, Inc. constitutes a violation of ABI’s trademark rights.”
In 2013, ABI sued the Andrew Realty Group in U.S. District Court for using the word “Beltline” as part of their business. ABI won the lawsuit, and the court ordered the real estate group to stop using the name.
After entrepreneur Michael Tavani launched Beltline & Co., a tech incubator in Ponce City Market in 2014, ABI sent him a cease-and-desist letter. Rather than fight the issue, Tavani chose to change the name of his business, and blogged about his decision on Medium.
Atlanta Loop is also familiar with Atlanta BeltLine Inc.’s aggressive enforcement of the Beltline name.
Prior to launch, Decaturish.com, the owner of Atlanta Loop, registered www.beltlinenews.com, www.thebeltlinenews.com and www.datelinebeltline.com. Within days of registering these domains, Decaturish was served with a cease-and-desist letter in which ABI demanded we relinquish the domain names to their control.
“It was surprising,” Decaturish Editor and Publisher Dan Whisenhunt said. “It was our assumption that the Beltline belonged to the public and that the name itself is a common one used around the country. We were also surprised that our first contact from the Beltline was an official cease and desist letter as opposed to a phone call, which would’ve sufficed.”
After reviewing the situation carefully, and taking into account the prior precedent set by the Andrew Realty decision, Decaturish ultimately agreed to transfer the domains to Atlanta BeltLine Inc. ABI did not offer to provide compensation for the domain names. Before the website launched as Atlanta Loop, Decaturish insisted ABI’s attorney provide a written agreement that ABI would not pursue further legal action over the website’s new name. ABI insisted on a disclaimer, which appears on our “About” page, that makes it clear we are unaffiliated with Atlanta BeltLine Inc.
“We are a new website and a small company,” Whisenhunt said. “A protracted legal battle with the entity we are covering did not seem prudent, particularly when ABI has legal precedent in their favor. That said, I think the ABI’s actions raise an important question. Who are they working for? The public or themselves? Going after Decaturish is one thing. We’re a commercial venture. We’re trying to make money. But Humans of the Atlanta BeltLine, which is a Facebook page that is essentially free PR? Why would Beltline care about that? It doesn’t make sense to us at all.”
Decaturish is currently working with Fream to see if she would like to continue publishing her work via Atlanta Loop.
“We think Fream is doing great things,” Whisenhunt said. “It’s a shame ABI is trying to make her change the name of her Facebook group.”