When the Atlanta BeltLine becomes a bully
In May 2016 I received a strange letter via email from an attorney in Miami, Florida. The 20 page letter—a hard copy of which was also delivered to my home by an overnight courier—said two domain names I had registered, datelinebeltline.com and thebeltlinenews.com, violated trademark rights held by Atlanta BeltLine, Inc., the nonprofit created by the city to plan and develop the Atlanta BeltLine. It said my news websites about the project would confuse readers and cause them to believe I was affiliated with ABI, an organization that most people who bike or walk on the BeltLine have never heard of.
I was threatened with a lawsuit and told I could wind up paying up to $200,000. “We hope that is not necessary,” the lawyer wrote. I handed over my domains to ABI without being compensated. I renamed my new website Atlanta Loop—and, at the insistence of BeltLine officials, included a disclaimer on the site saying it was not affiliated with the organization.
I admit, getting threatened with litigation before I published a single story hurt my relationship with ABI. When you are dealing with a public agency that threatens to destroy your business, it’s hard to be objective about their motives. The imbroglio opened my eyes: Most people think of the BeltLine as the darling of Atlanta, a fun amenity with restaurants and pricey housing, a place to ride a bike or walk your dog. But the warm and fuzzy marketing masks a bureaucracy that’s not afraid to use the legal system or the courts against the public.
Since 2013 ABI has stopped a bicycle shop, a startup incubator, and a Facebook group formerly known as “Humans of the Atlanta BeltLine” from using “BeltLine” in their names. The organization has been blasted by trail advocates, who object to the more than $350,000 spent policing the trademark since 2009.
ABI has also accused Piedmont Heights homeowners of extending their backyards onto what the BeltLine considers to be its land. After unsuccessful talks, the organization surprised them with a lawsuit seeking punitive damages in 2016. ABI declines to comment on the issue as litigation is ongoing.
ABI insists its trademark restrictions prevent private individuals from profiting off a public asset. When people co-opt the “Atlanta BeltLine” or “BeltLine” name, they say, “it can create the mistaken impression that the individual or business and their product or service is either provided by or is related to or sponsored by the Atlanta BeltLine and ABI.”
BeltLine officials also say they try to contact trademark offenders first, turning to legal action only as a last resort. Enforcement efforts have been successful, they note. Last year ABI sent only six cease-and-desist letters—versus challenging some 200 unauthorized trademark uses in the past.
But these disputes raise a bigger question: Who “owns” the BeltLine? If the name is trademarked, it means we, the people, don’t anymore, says Ryan Gravel, the founder of urban design firm SixPitch and original creator of the BeltLine. “If I want to open an Atlanta BeltLine Barber Shop, I should be able to do that,” he says. “The BeltLine is not a corporation; it’s a place. If I want to open Brooklyn Bridge Barber Shop, I should be able to do that.” I’m tempted to agree with him. The BeltLine belongs to Atlanta.
—Dan Whisenhunt is the editor and publisher of The Atlanta Loop and Decaturish.