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“Not your Mother’s PTA”—Parents, Teachers, and Trademarks

By: Claire E. Little *

The Chicago and Alexandria-based, non-profit National Parent Teacher Association (“PTA”) has sued its rival, PTO Today, a for-profit organization based in Massachusetts. After years of attempting to settle their trademark dispute out of court, PTA brought suit against PTO Today accusing PTO Today of “denigrating the established group[, PTA,] in a bid to siphon off members.” The lawsuit includes PTO Today’s parent company, School Family Media Inc., a marketing and media company also based in Massachusetts. Filing in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois, PTA’s suit seeks injunctive relief and punitive damages for trademark infringement, false advertising, deceptive trade practices, and other allegations.

While PTA is a non-profit organization founded in 1897, PTO Today is a for-profit relative new-comer to the business of parent-teacher alliances. A historic powerhouse for child advocacy, PTA’s peak membership in the 1960’s of 12 million has dwindled to approximately 5 million. According to PTA’s complaint, new competition with PTO Today is at least partially to blame for PTA’s steep decline in membership over the years.

According to PTA, PTO Today poaches PTA’s members by soliciting them to leave the national PTA organization and opt for a local parent-teacher organization, or PTO. Additionally, PTA alleges that PTO Today attempts to confuse or mislead the public by encouraging consumers to believe that PTA and PTO Today have a relationship. Furthering this allegation, PTO Today’s website is rife with references to PTA’s trademark. PTO uses the trademarked “PTA” abbreviation throughout its site, often with a reference to its own abbreviation as if to suggest the two terms are synonymous and interchangeable:

“Regardless of the acronym (PTO or PTA, etc.), PTO Today is committed to helping parent group leaders serve their schools more effectively and run their groups more efficiently.”

Despite these public uses of PTA’s trademark, School Family Media Inc.’s founder and CEO, Tim Sullivan, believes that PTA’s claims in the suit have no merit. He states that any confusion between the terms PTA and PTO existed before his organization started in 1999. In response to PTA’s charge that PTO Today provides a “roadmap for parents to leave the PTA,” Sullivan stands by the legality of his organization’s actions. Sullivan takes the position that his business model is designed to appeal to PTOs and PTAs; as a media company his organization does not seek membership but rather clients.

After years of unresolved tensions between PTA and PTO Today, the court must determine whether PTO Today’s actions constitute trademark infringement or old-fashioned, schoolyard competition.

* Claire Little is a second year law student at Wake Forest University School of Law. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in English and Philosophy from Virginia Tech. Upon graduation, Ms. Little plans to pursue intellectual property law.