Do I Have Permission To Mention The BeltLine Here?

An old friend of mine received a cease-and-desist letter this week from Atlanta BeltLine Inc., instructing him to turn over the domain EatTheBeltline.com as a trademark infringing site.

Duncan Connor is the former social media guy for Atlanta Eats and had been working on a foodie site pointing out restaurants along the BeltLine. For the moment, there’s little more to it than a Google map and some Twitter traffic, although I think he had larger plans … which he’s likely to scrap now.

I’m fascinated. I’ve asked the attorney from Greenberg-Traurig if he had sent letters to other businesses using the term “BeltLine” in marketing materials? Should a restaurant opening on or near the BeltLine be required to seek approval of Atlanta BeltLine Inc. before telling anyone that they’re on the BeltLine? How about other businesses that might naturally associate with the walking trails, like bike shops, sporting goods stores, art galleries and the like?

The law firm hasn’t responded yet. When they get back to me, I’ll update this.

This isn’t the first time the BeltLine folks have made legal threats to stop someone from using the term BeltLine. Two years ago, the BeltLine took Andrew Realty to court over an apparent cybersquatter who locked down URLs like “atlantabeltline.org” to connect to his real estate business. (I spoke briefly to a fellow at Andrew Realty, but he hasn’t gotten back to me.)

While that’s pretty clearly an abuse, I have to wonder about them going after Michael Tavani a few months later. Tavani, a founder of Scoutmob, started a tech incubator called “Beltline & Co.” at Ponce City Market. After he got a C&D letter, he changed the name to Switchyards … and changed the location to a place on Spring Street. (Edit: the PR folks for PCM inform me that Tavani never actually leased property at the market.)

I’m not arguing the BeltLine’s point on trademark infringement with regard to Duncan’s use of the BeltLine logo — that was plainly a mistake. And I understand the need to defend a mark from dilution. I’m just wondering where the natural demarcations may be for use of the term as a matter of economic development, especially since this is a public-private partnership. If businesses become afraid to even mention the name BeltLine for fear of receiving a C&D letter, I have to wonder how positive the public’s associations will be with the project, moving forward.

More to the point: the BeltLine has been pitched as a series of public parks, along with private redevelopment in adjacent areas. The price for this redevelopment appears to be an inability for the public to refer to it without coughing up a check.

17 comments

    • NoTeabagging says:

      Beltline (one word *so sue me*)
      noun
      1.
      the waistline.

      belt line (two words)
      noun
      1.
      a transportation system partially or wholly surrounding a city, terminal, district, or port.
      2.
      (in automotive styling) a horizontal boundary dividing the upper and lower parts of a car body, either an actual line of trim or an imaginary line that follows contours of the body.

  1. NoTeabagging says:

    Well, that’s silly. Using the word “Beltline” as a geographic reference is not trademark infringement. It should be welcomed as a sign that it is an accepted and desirable destination hub..with a “name”. I will hereinafter refer to it as “The Loop” to avoid any unauthorized utterance.

    This use should be encouraged, not slapped with a suit every time it tumbles out of someone’s mouth. Or Heaven forbid a coalition of businesses should actually promotes themselves with the cachet of being geogrphically near “the loop”, or as the eattheloop.com site describes it, “Atlanta’s biggest public works project.” How do you expect businesses to develop around the Loop if they cannot even utter where they are located in proximity to the Loop???

    On the other hand, creating a business name that sounds or implies it is an official entity of one or more other “real” Atlanta Beltline entities ( Atlanta BeltLine Partnership, Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., beltline.org, and the email domains atlbeltline.org & atlbeltlinepartnership.org) OK …you get it… that is certainly wrong. So…How many entities does the real “LOOP”need? Fruit Loops.
    THe website did make one huge mistake, using the “mosaic” logo of the official loop as part of its own branding. Totally different issue. Remove the official mosaic logo and you should be good.

    • Andrew C. Pope says:

      As an IP lawyer, I just want to assuage some fears here. The BeltLine trademark is, in actuality, pretty limited. Judging from a quick perusal of USPTO’s database, there’s nothing that would prevent me from starting BeltLine Pizza or BeltLine Bottle Shop. In fact, there’s an active registration for BeltLine Bike Shop that was filed in March 2014.

      Further, fair use protection allows businesses to use the term BeltLine as a means of referencing their location (ex. “located three blocks from the BeltLine” or “just a short walk from the BeltLine”).

      What you can’t do, and what was done here, is perform a straight rip off of the BeltLine’s logo. The guy is dead to rights on that one. The website argument is a tad weaker, and its possible to argue that eatthebeltline.com does not cause confusion with beltline.com. The same can be said for the Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook accounts as well.

      Lastly, to George’s point about a quasi-public non-profit organization crowding out would-be users of the BeltLine mark. While I think it’s always problematic when an organization that exists for the public good comes across looking like a bad guy (try as I might, I’ve never been able to craft a C&D that doesn’t make me sound like I’m a guy that kicks puppies), the attorneys at GT could have gone much further in terms of extending the BeltLine trademark to other areas.

      Doing so, however, would have limited the ways in which the rest of Atlanta could use the phrase. That means no BeltLine Pizza, no BeltLine Bottle Shop, no BeltLine Belt Buckle Emporium. While they’ve been ready to go after marks that likely cause confusion (e.g., BeltLine & Co., atlantabeltline.com), I’ve noticed there’s been less movement to go after uses like BeltLine Kroger (aka Murder Kroger), uses where business owners are trying to draw consumers into making a connection between their store and the BeltLine.

      To me, that shows that the Atlanta BeltLine’s goal on the trademark isn’t to destroy all comers, it’s to make sure people aren’t sewing confusion about the project.

      • NoTeabagging says:

        Thanks. Great explanation. Quick question. Could using the the word “Beltline” lowercase “line” OR using “Belt Line” two words, regardless of case, be appropriate for the “fair use” mention of said geographic feature? Those spellings would place the use under standard dictionary use.

        Is seems they are really hung up on THEIR branding which almost always uses “BeltLine”
        in the name. The trademark documents state use is not restricted to specific font, style, etc.
        I am always amazed at the gall of lawyers to litigate over their presumption that the public is confused over use of a phrase. They of course never offer proof that such confusion has occurred at the mass lemming level as to infringe upon a rather obvious non-association.

        eatthebeltline is obviously formed to promote private food venues along a public geographic feature. I am not confused. They could always add a disclaimer that they are not an official entity of Atlanta BeltLine Partnership or Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. and future official entities.

        • NoTeabagging says:

          I’ve seen these boilerplate domain name threats sent to folks over similar issues. A good public lashing in the media showing the B***line bullying businesses they so hope to attract should squelch the issue. I think the average B***line user would support the businesses and be upset at the official organization.

        • Andrew C. Pope says:

          Capitalization and spacing (or lack thereof) doesn’t matter when evaluating word marks. There’s no difference between BeltLine and B e L t L i N e. If you’re an apartment building and want to put “two blocks from the BeltLine,” that’s just as fair use as saying “two blocks from the belt line.”

          As for your point on litigating the issue of confusion, mark owners (not lawyers, we just do what we’ve been paid to do) litigate over public confusion because that is what judges and trademark examiners are going to consider when evaluating an infringement claim. The “main goal” of trademark law is giving the public confidence in the product they’re buying. As an ancillary goal, we’re protecting the work brand owners put into making their products recognizable and desirable. If the public is confused by a potentially infringing mark, they lose confidence in the product and the mark owner loses the thing that made him unique in the marketplace.

          It’s great that you wouldn’t be confused by eatthebeltline. If I was defending them (disclaimer: I’m not), I’d want you in my pool of consumer surveys. When you have a trademark case and you’re arguing that the average consumer is likely to be confused (or unlikely to be confused) you want a nice, representative survey of the relevant consumer base to back up that point. It’s not dispositive, but it does go a long way in proving your point.

  2. benevolus says:

    Why would you even trademark something like that? Is “Buckhead” trademarked? It basically defines a part of town for crying out loud. It’s not a “product” that anyone can copy.

    • NoTeabagging says:

      I’m sure Sam Massell (no disrespect), Buckhead Coalition et al tried such “Branding” back in the day.
      There is the old joke about them inching the “Buckhead” boundary signs closer to midtown in the dead of night.

  3. Pete Gibbons says:

    My belt line is at a 32 these days. Must I cease and desist situps and crunches? Please say yes.

    • MattMD says:

      I don’t know how tall you are but 32″ seems pretty trim to me. I haven’t worn anything that size since high school.

  4. Dave Bearse says:

    Outside of the logo, this is another example of why attorneys and the justice system are held in such high regard, and why APS ought to prevail in receiving its contractual payments from the City.

  5. IANAL (I am not a lawyer), but it seems a company could legally use the more generic term “belt line”, rather than BeltLine. The rail infrastructure was called the belt line (and the railway was the Atlanta Belt Railway Company) long before the BeltLine project.

    Check out definition number 4 at Merriam-Webster Online http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/beltline

    belt line is the common term for a rail line circling a city.

  6. heroV says:

    Atlanta Beltline could at least use an Atlanta law firm rather than a Miami law firm considering how they’re funded, not to mention how they’re in arrears to Atlanta Public Schools. There are plenty of local lawyers and firms who could have handled this for them.

  7. Baker says:

    The project that must-not-be-named! Does that make Atlanta Public Schools as the boy who lived?

    Seriously though, I’m all for the Beltline but damned if that development around it doesn’t seem to be getting out of control now. Several thousand condos/apartments between Ponce and Highland seems like a smidge too many. Hope you don’t have to drive on North Avenue in 2016. Or hope you’re not a fan of the Masquerade. The city will inevitably side with developers and push them out. And with it will go yet another cultural piece that made the area so attractive in the first place. Damn the culture, More Condos!

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