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PTA sues rival PTO for trademark infringement, false advertising

Updated: October 29, 2012 6:28AM

Remember the PTA — that alliance of parents and teachers at your local school?

It’s not your mother’s PTA anymore — you’ll more likely find them advocating in state legislatures and Congress than hosting bake sales.

But the 115-year-old organization holds fiercely to its trademarked history.

On Wednesday, the nonprofit organization filed a trademark infringement lawsuit against School Family Media, the for-profit parent company of a website that uses the trademarked “PTA” name on its materials with impunity.

“PTA is an American icon,” said its president, Betsy Landers. “PTA had no choice but to take legal action to protect its respected name and reputation.”

Based in Chicago since the 1930s, the National Parent Teacher Association recently moved its headquarters to Alexandria, Va. but still has offices here.

Its suit against the Wrentham, Mass.-based media and marketing firm was filed in U.S. District Court in Chicago.

The PTA accuses School Family Media of false advertising, deceptive trade practices and disparagement of the PTA name on its website, and in materials used to sell insurance and training and development resources.

The company’s mission, facilitating parental involvement in schools, is a PTA hallmark, and it offers resources under PTA’s domain for decades. Its website makes liberal reference to PTAs and PTOs — parent teacher organizations. However, the founder of the 13-year-old company dismisses the allegations.

“We believe that the claims in the suit have no merit,” School Family Media founder and CEO Tim Sullivan said. “[We] plan on defending vigorously our rights to provide help to as many parent-teacher we can.”

Sullivan said his company has made accommodations since receiving the first PTA complaints four years ago, while believing it has done nothing wrong.

Sullivan implied his firm is being blamed for the PTA’s membership decline.

At its 1960s peak, the PTA boasted 12 million members. Today, it’s 5 million.

“We are not the cause of the PTA’s struggles,” Sullivan asserted.

But the suit accuses his company of soliciting PTA members to leave the PTA and start a PTO to purchase his services. The suit seeks permanent injunction against such future contact of any PTA members, use of the PTA name, and any implication of affiliation between the two groups. It seeks punitive damages.

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