A year ago, Jessie Fream started what she considered a love letter to the Atlanta Beltline and the people on it. She created a public group on Facebook called "Humans of the Atlanta BeltLine" a play on the popular blog "Humans of New York." Anytime she was on the Beltline she would interview fellow users, take a photo and post it to the page with their consent.
But a few weeks ago, she got a message on Facebook from Beltline representatives asking her to to stop using the words "BeltLine" or "Beltline" on her page . Fream posted about it and the response raised questions among locals about how the Beltline name should be used.
"I started this little blog as just a hobby and it has blown up which is kind of exciting," said Fream, whose group has grown to 2,500 members. "It tickled my heart because a lot of people just love the Beltline and I hope they are getting joy out of reading what is happening out there."
But Fream fears Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. (ABI), the entity charged with overseeing the planning and execution of the Atlanta BeltLine vision, doesn't completely approve of her goodwill.
While they have not sent her a legal notice, Fream isn't sure where everything stands and hasn't decided how to proceed. "I wanted to interview babies and (take pictures of) pets and now I’m an (expletive)," said Fream, who is still posting content to her Facebook page.
Local attorneys have offered to assist her pro bono and friends have started hashtags on social media to protest her having to change the name of the page, she said.
In response, Beltline officials said they support and appreciate the pride and sense of ownership that Atlanta residents are taking in the Atlanta BeltLine, but note that the BeltLine is a registered trademark that must be protected.
"We respect everyone's right to freedom of speech and expression about the Atlanta BeltLine and it's not our intent to control public perception of ABI by infringing on those rights. Our position is simply to protect this public asset for the public," said Ericka Davis, spokeswoman for ABI.
Davis said rather than send a cease and desist letter to Fream, they reached out to her personally to make her aware that she was using a registered trademark.
"We recognize that to the public, a Facebook page with unauthorized use of the trademark may seem harmless, but without a license agreement, we risk the potential of having the trademark associated with erroneous and even harmful information and the public associating the page and its content as being officially produced by or affiliated with the Atlanta BeltLine," she said.
Fream noted that had reached out to Brandon Stanton, who created "Humans of New York" in 2010 as a photography project and he had no problem with her using the name as inspiration for her Facebook page. For now, it is unclear how things will move forward.
"We have not heard back from Ms. Fream about potential alternatives to using the mark but would have no problem continuing the conversation," said Davis.
In several cases, when ABI's legal team has issued cease and desist letters they have been to for-profit businesses. ABI asked Dan Whisenhunt, creator of AtlantaLoop to change the name of the site (it previously used the name BeltLine) and post a disclaimer that states the site is not affiliated with the Beltline. The website is a for-profit company with subscriber fees and paid advertising. To date, Fream has not received any payment for "Humans of the Atlanta BeltLine."
The “Atlanta BeltLine” or “BeltLine” name has become known beyond the city limits and usage is growing, said Beltline officials. When others use the name or variations of it as part of a name and brand for a product or service, it could give the impression that the entity is provided by, related to or sponsored by the ABI, Davis said.
Davis compares the Atlanta BeltLine to New York's High Line, and notes the strict trademark and protective policy that governs usage of the High Line name .
While the BeltLine has a link on the website directing individuals and entities to contact them before using the name to discuss options and possible licensing of the name , most people don't contact them first to discuss trademark issues, she said.
In the last year, the volume of organizations and individuals using the BeltLine name without contacting ABI for permission has grown. Some of the more concerning domain names that have been registered include “BeltLine Murder” or “BeltLine Booty," Davis shared.
ABI is also concerned about potential liability issues for unauthorized users of the BeltLine name.
"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," Davis said. While ABI may not have any involvement in the issue, using resources for defense against such actions could funnel resources away from the completion of the Beltline. "This is why we protect the use of the name the way we do," Davis said.
Though some people have recently offered her money, Fream said she has declined any monetary compensation in connection with "Humans of the Atlanta BeltLine" precisely because she feels that is the only reason ABI has not engaged her in a legal battle.
"I do understand trademark issues. I’m not a lawyer but I do understand protecting the brand and everything else," said Fream. "But it is getting to be super awkward. It’s like hey, 'I’ll meet you out on the sidewalk *wink*.' I love (the Beltline) and I want people to share it. So they know, hey, this is what is going on out here."
Support real journalism. Support local journalism. Subscribe to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution today. See offers.
Your subscription to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution funds in-depth reporting and investigations that keep you informed. Thank you for supporting real journalism.