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Angie's List, AT&T fight in court over consumer firm's logo

June 30, 2008

A federal court this month gave a thumbs-down to a lawsuit filed by Angie's List claiming that AT&T Yellow Pages violated trademark laws by publishing ads containing the Angie's List logo of a servicewoman giving a "thumbs-up."

But on June 25--two weeks after the court dismissed the suit saying its legal arguments were "meager" and "insubstantial"--the publisher of online and print business directories filed an amended case against AT&T in U.S. District Court.

The amended suit is Angie's List's attempt to finally get at the merits of the case. It also builds on allegations AT&T induced advertisers to infringe on Angie's List trademarks.

"AT&T has essentially told businesses, 'Your competitor has an Angie's List logo in their Yellow Pages ad, and so you, too, should buy a Yellow Pages ad that includes an Angie's List logo,'" alleges Indianapolis-based Brownstone Publishing, parent of Angie's List.

AT&T had not responded to the newly filed complaint at IBJ deadline.

Angie's first alleged federal and state trademark infringements last December. It seeks to recover unspecified profits from AT&T as well as treble damages.

Angie's publishes directories that give subscribers ratings and recommendations on everything from plumbers to roofers. Ratings are based largely on homeowners' experiences with firms.

Earning an Angie's List recommendation can amount to valuable bragging rights for contractors. Some included the "thumbs-up" Angie's List logo in their AT&T Yellow Pages ads--often alongside logos indicating Better Business Bureau membership and trade association accreditations.

But Angie's List prohibits the use of its service marks in directories published by other firms. The company says it has invested "hundreds of thousands of dollars" in promoting its directories in more than 100 cities.

Businesses are "less likely to purchase advertising from [Angie's] if their competitors are allowed to use plaintiff's marks in other business directories, such as those distributed by Ameritech [AT&T]," the local firm argues.

Angie's List alleged that it informed AT&T starting in 2005 that the telecommunications giant was infringing upon its trademark by publishing its "protected intellectual property" in Yellow Pages ads.

Angie's List argued that AT&T continued to include the logos in ads well after numerous warnings, despite promises of cooperation.

It produced a copy of a January 2007 letter by AT&T to a local plumbing firm, apologizing for using the logo in the Yellow Pages ad despite the plumbing firm's request it not be used.

In late 2006, an AT&T account executive sent a letter to Angie's List, asking it not to penalize Indianapolis-based Bone Dry Roofing after AT&T ran the roofing firm's ad with an Angie's List logo.

Apparently, Angie's List was none too happy with Bone Dry.

"The logo being left in the yellow pages ad was the mistake of ATT, not Bone Dry Roofing. I understand that Bone Dry has been served with documents stating that their ability to continue the same relationship with Angie's List has been diminished due to the logo still being in the ad," the AT&T account exec wrote.

But in her dismissal on June 11, U.S. District Court Judge Sarah Evans Barker said Angie's List made no allegation "that the advertisements, including the trademarks, were created by anyone other than the business advertisers themselves."

Also, other than the fact that Angie's List's trademarks appeared in some of the advertisements, "there is no allegation that [AT&T] used Angie's List's trademarks to promote or sell their Yellow Pages directories to their business-advertiser customers or to the general public."

"The court is entitled to assume that, if Angie's List had viable arguments to support its claim, it would have presented them. The court will not conduct Angie's List's research and build its analysis in order to find facts and law to support its own claims," Barker wrote.

Attorneys for AT&T argued that advertisers represented that they had the right to use the Angie's List marks.

Moreover, AT&T argued that Angie's failed to assert claims against any of the infringing companies and that it also failed to allege AT&T intentionally induced advertisers to infringe on trademarks.

AT&T was represented by Washington, D.C., law firm Dickinson Wright and by Indianapolis-based Hoover Hull LLP. Principal Andrew Hull said he could not comment in light of the continued litigation.

"We can confirm that the court ruled in favor of AT&T but have no further comment," said AT&T spokeswoman Jodi Bart.

Angie's List is represented by Overhauser Law Offices. Attorneys at the Greenfield firm did not return phone calls.

Angie's List spokeswoman Cheryl Reed said the amended complaint is intended to answer questions raised earlier by the court. "Essentially, we're just going to vigorously defend our trademark."

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