This story has been updated.
Atlanta BeltLine Inc. has provided Atlanta Loop with a lengthy response to an article about ABI’s attempts to force the owner of the “Humans of the Atlanta BeltLine” Facebook group to change the group’s name.
ABI has received an avalanche of criticism over contacting the group’s owner, Jessie Fream, to urge her to change the name. Fream runs the Facebook group in her spare time, for fun, and posts pictures of people she meets along the Beltline.
“We recognize to the public that a Facebook page may seem harmless, but without ABI being the administrator of such a page, we cannot control the information and therefore risk having the trademark associated with erroneous and even harmful information,” ABI’s letter says.
The letter claims that ABI has been threatened with litigation over the actions of someone illegally appropriating the Beltline name, but the letter does not provide any additional details. Atlanta Loop asked for more specifics, but the ABI declined to provide them.
“I have been advised by counsel that as it is a legal matter that could potentially lead to litigation, we cannot discuss it at this time,” spokesperson Ericka Davis said. “However should it go to formal litigation, we will provide you the names at that time.”
Atlanta Loop has not found any current or past lawsuits against ABI caused by someone using the Beltline name without permission. ABI has filed at least one lawsuit against someone who used the Beltline name. 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.
ABI provided a list of more than 200 domain names that include the word “Beltline.”
“The sheer volume of current usage of the name over the last year alone … by organizations and individuals without contacting ABI for permission is extensive,” ABI’s letter says. “For example, we believe that the public would be just as concerned and take issue if there were a ‘BeltLine Murder’ or ‘BeltLine Booty’ for a city amenity that they love and is considered family oriented (these are just two of the domains out there).”
Davis said ABI has sent out more than 70 letters regarding the domain names, many of which have the same registrar. Of those domains, ABI now controls 50.
Even though the Beltline is a public amenity that is governed by a publicly-funded organization, Beltline defended its practice of aggressively defending its trademark, even if the person using the Beltline name is not profiting from it.
“You are correct in that the Atlanta BeltLine is a public asset both as a project and the name and brand of the entity that implements the project. ABI has a fiduciary responsibility to protect this public asset in the interest of the public,” the letter says. “As the ‘Atlanta BeltLine’ or ‘BeltLine’ name has become well known beyond the City’s limits, usage has grown tremendously.
“When others use ‘Atlanta BeltLine’ or ‘BeltLine’ as part of their own name and brand for a product or a service, it can create the mistaken impression that the third party and its product or service is either provided by or is related to or sponsored by ABI.”
As an example, ABI pointed to a fictitious City of Atlanta Facebook page that incorporates a city seal that includes announcements like, “Starting next week, all Atlanta police officers will wear body cams so their clubbings can go viral.”
When Palmer was asked if he was worried about the city of Atlanta complaining about the page, Palmer said, “No, that would be funny.”
“If the actual city of Atlanta is worried that people won’t be able to discern from satire and reality, then maybe they have some work to do,” he said.
So how does Palmer feel about ABI using his page as an example of someone improperly using a public entity’s trademark?
“I’m not sure why they are using this page in an argument, I just started it yesterday,” he said. “I would say that if the Beltline people wanted to have control over their brand, they’d make their own group and spend time on it, so it would overshadow the other group. It doesn’t take much work, and complaining about it might be a waste of energy.”
It’s unclear if the city of Atlanta has attempted to stop the page from using its name or representing itself as the city of Atlanta, and Davis was unaware if the city had any plans to contact the page’s owner.
“We do [not] comment for the City of Atlanta,” Davis said. “You would need to inquire with them. We used the Facebook page as an example of how a third party is improperly using their name and logo (the official seal) with messaging that could be considered harmful.”
Here is the full letter from ABI:
Dear Mr. Whisenhunt,
In response to your recent story “Atlanta BeltLine Inc Issues Warning to Humans of the Atlanta BeltLine Facebook Group” (October 5, 2016), we wanted to reach out to you to address some misconceptions. First and foremost, ABI did not send a “cease and desist” letter to Ms. Fream. Our practice is to reach out to any individual and or organization to speak to them before an issue escalates to the level of receiving correspondence from our legal department. This was the case with with Ms. Fream when a member of our team reached out to her privately to make her aware of the trademark issue. Ms. Fream asked us for suggestions regarding a new name and since we could not provide advice regarding a new name, she stated that she would get back to us when she decided on what to do. That is the last interaction we had with Ms. Fream at the time your article was published and to date.
You are correct in that the Atlanta BeltLine is a public asset both as a project and the name and brand of the entity that implements the project. ABI has a fiduciary responsibility to protect this public asset in the interest of the public. As the “Atlanta BeltLine” or “BeltLine” name has become well known beyond the City’s limits, usage has grown tremendously. When others use “Atlanta BeltLine” or “BeltLine” as part of their own name and brand for a product or a service, it can create the mistaken impression that the third party and its product or service is either provided by or is related to or sponsored by ABI. The sheer volume of current usage of the name over the last year alone (see the attached list) by organizations and individuals without contacting ABI for permission is extensive. For example, we believe that the public would be just as concerned and take issue if there were a ‘BeltLine Murder’ or ‘BeltLine Booty’ for a city amenity that they love and is considered family oriented (these are just two of the domains out there).
Moreover, when you have multiple entities using the trademark/name, it creates more than just confusion regarding that entity’s association with ABI, it also creates a liability issue for the City, ABI and taxpayers if an unauthorized user of the trademark causes harm or damage to another. For example, ABI was recently notified of an individual’s intent to sue ABI based on an injury caused by a non-ABI affiliated entity which used the words Atlanta BeltLine in their name. While ABI has no culpability or involvement in the matter, resources that could be used for the project have to be diverted from the construction, development and maintenance of the trail to defend such actions. This is why we protect the use of the name the way we do.
We ask on our website for individuals and entities to contact us before using the name so that we can discuss their request to use the name and perhaps be considered for a license agreement. See http://beltline.org/about/ communications/logo-and-name- usage/. Unfortunately, people rarely contact us first to discuss usage of the trademark and the overwhelming majority seek to use the name of a free public amenity for their own personal or financial gain which we cannot allow. We recognize to the public that a Facebook page may seem harmless, but without ABI being the administrator of such a page, we cannot control the information and therefore risk having the trademark associated with erroneous and even harmful information. For example, here is Facebook page improperly using the City of Atlanta’s seal and name with erroneous (and potentially harmful) information: https://www.facebook.com/City- of-AtIanta-657869737705262/? hc_ref=NEWSFEED.
We realize that in many ways we aren’t going to please everyone on this issue but please be assured that our every intent is to protect the name and image of this amenity FOR the public so that citizens can continue to have civic pride in it.
Associate Editor Mariann Martin contributed to this story.