Cityhood group and Morgan County town may battle over trademark rights to the name ‘Buckhead’
By John Ruch
Resentment about Atlanta’s Buckhead cityhood movement in the existing Morgan County city of Buckhead could come to a head in a legal dispute over trademark rights to the name.
At issue is the Buckhead City Committee’s application to trademark its logo, self-described as “a fanciful depiction of an eight-point set of deer antlers over the terms Buckhead City.” The existing city, known as the Town of Buckhead, has hired an attorney to file an objection, citing name confusion.
“The Town of Buckhead is extremely concerned about the prospect of another municipality adopting the same name in the same state, which will lead to so much confusion; especially for the businesses in the Town of Buckhead that need to be able to be found and properly identified in online searches and on a map,” said Amanda Hyland, the Atlanta attorney handling the objections. “The Town of Buckhead intends to oppose any efforts to name any other municipality “Buckhead,” including by opposing the current efforts to trademark ‘Buckhead City.’”
That could include an official letter of objection to the trademark application at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, according to the Morgan County Citizen.
Jeffrey Sladkus, the attorney who filed the BCC’s trademark application in September, declined comment beyond saying that the group is “still working this out internally.” Bill White, the BCC’s chairman and CEO, told the Citizen this month that he envisions the two towns as “sister cities” and that talk of lawyers “sounds aggressive and indeed unfriendly.” He also suggested the BCC — and by extension, the future city — would prevail because its usage dates to the 1830s while the Town of Buckhead was incorporated in 1908.
But trademark law — which grants federal and sometimes state-level exclusivity to use protected terms and symbols in certain circumstances — is not that simple. It’s not uncommon for cities to do some trademarking. The City of Atlanta, for example, trademarked its official seal, but not its name or “resurgens” motto. Another nuance is that the “Buckhead City” trademark would apply to the BCC; if a new city does form, its government might have to negotiate with the group for rights to the name as well.
Michael Powell, an intellectual property attorney not involved in the case, says such disputes can be costly, and this one could be tough for both sides since they’ve been using “Buckhead” for over a century. He suggests a settlement on mutual use of the name. “If an agreement is not reached,” he said, “we are likely to learn much more about the rich history of Buckhead in Georgia while enduring lame jokes about how the parties are ‘butting heads.’”
The remarkable Georgia popularity of naming places for decapitated deer has long rankled the Town of Buckhead, a dot on the Morgan County map, as the Atlanta version grew into the subject of major media attention. The 1996 Summer Olympics in Atlanta was a particular time of confusion for wandering tourists.
The cityhood movement in Atlanta’s Buckhead has sparked outrage in Morgan County. While Atlanta’s Buckhead is trying to deannex itself, Morgan County’s Buckhead is growing rapidly with major annexations. In fact, footing the bill for the trademark dispute, according to the Citizen, is the owner of a 250-acre ranch that is being added to the Town of Buckhead.
The trademark application from the BCC, which is still officially known by its original name of the Buckhead Exploratory Committee, is for the particular logo but also includes the phrase “Buckhead City” itself. The application is for a particular kind of protection called a service mark, which relates to services. Those services are described as promoting the establishment of the new city and economic development within it.
Powell says that trademark court battles are “very fact-specific,” and in this case would drill down into who has what sort of rights, how likely public confusion is, and what other entities in the area use the name “Buckhead.” He noted that the law favors consumers from the perspective of ensuring that they are not confused about the product or service they are getting.
“The citizens of Georgia have apparently tolerated both areas having similar names for 100-plus years already, so there doesn’t seem to be an urgent need to enforce trademark laws to avoid confusion,” Powell said. “In my humble opinion, it would benefit both sides to listen to each other’s concerns and come to an agreement to continue to co-exist.”