The city of Sandy Springs hopes its City Springs mixed-use project will inspire similar private developments throughout downtown in a district with the same name. But what’s to stop the “City Springs” name showing up in a project the city might not prefer—say, a City Springs Junk Shop?
The city has trademarked its own City Springs logo and says it has “guidance” over the phrase. But the first private project using the term—the proposed Plaza at City Springs South on Roswell Road—was blasted last month by the city Planning Commission for a strip-center design that was not very City Springs-ish.
The city may have sticky situations in trying to both spread and protect the “City Springs” name downtown, said Michael Powell, a Sandy Springs attorney who specializes in intellectual property law, including trademarks and brand names.
“You’ve got to police the market and protect [the brand name],” said Powell, adding that inviting others to use the “City Springs” term is tricky. “It does open the door to a ‘me, too’ argument for others.”
The city’s downtown project and district was originally called City Center. The city spent $77,000 on a branding consultant who came up with the more distinctive “City Springs” name and a fountain-like symbol that was unveiled at a public ceremony last year. The city filed for a trademark—an official legal protection—for its specific design of the City Springs term and symbol.
“As it is trademarked, we’ll have guidance over its use, but the intent is to extend the brand throughout that district,” said city spokesperson Sharon Kraun.
Steven Cadranel, the developer of that controversial Roswell Road project, asked and received permission to use the “City Springs” term, Kraun said.
As the Planning Commission’s reaction shows, city governments have many other powerful ways—like zoning or code enforcement—to stop undesirable projects using the City Springs name.
“The city of Sandy Springs controls what goes on within its borders and that…is probably enough to carry the day on [a] trademark issue,” Powell said.
But other situations could be legally tricky, Powell said. That’s because protecting a name isn’t just about trademark paperwork. It’s a dynamic process of building and using the brand.
Powell examined the city’s federal trademark application for “City Springs.” He said it is filed only for online, business-related uses. He quoted the paperwork as also saying the city “has disclaimed the exclusive right to use the term ‘CITY SPRINGS’ apart from the mark as shown.” That means others can use the general name without the fountain symbol or special lettering.
The city apparently did not file for a state trademark, which would offer further legal protections, Powell said. But in any case, the city could still make a legal argument against other uses of “City Springs,” with or without official trademark paperwork.
“Ultimately, and even if one’s trademark rights are unregistered, the trademark laws are designed to protect consumers from a likelihood of being confused, mistaken or deceived as between different sources of goods or services,” he said.
But that also means the city must do something to give “City Springs” a distinctive “quality” and “value,” Powell said. He added that, at least in this early stage, those qualities are hard to put a finger on.
“So how the city does this [branding] and encourages the use of it [by others] and gets the quality out of it [that] it wants, I don’t know,” he said.