Nonprofits Square Off Over Trademarks

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May 31, 2011; Source: Star Tribune | No matter how worthy the cause or an organization's intentions, charities that brand themselves or their work in ways that sound too close to names or phrases belonging to better-known groups had better watch out. According to the Star Tribune, there are "growing concerns over branding and trademark issues among nonprofits."

As the paper notes, "Once reserved for squabbles between for-profit organizations, the pink ribbons, logos and catchy phrases linked to charities are being fiercely protected as competition for donations grows, especially on the Internet." For example, a five-year-old Minnesota group that runs an all-volunteer sled-dog cancer fundraiser billed as the "Mush for a Cure," recently received a letter from an attorney for Susan G. Komen for Cure telling it to stop using "for a cure" in its name. The Star Tribune says that Komen, which has asked "dozens of groups" to cease using "for the cure" or "for a cure," backed off after NBC News highlighted the sled-dog group's plight in a national broadcast.

For their part, well-known charities say they have to go the extra length to protect their trademarks because of what they describe as their "historic investments in brand and reputation." Still some organizations can show they have a heart. David Livingston, general counsel for the American Heart Association, says his group receives some 20 reports a year from supporters across the country who spot improper use of its trademarks. The Heart association takes pains to go after for-profit makers of medical devices or companies promoting diet plans that imply its endorsement. But for nonprofits, Livingston says the group is much more "deferential."—Bruce Trachtenberg

  • Brett Ridge

    Interesting…for many years volunteers have asked why they couldn’t alter logos…even just a little bit (like adding a golf flag for an event); or why they couldn’t use pieces of organizational names for events. This is why.

    In any case,I might still suggest that the big boys in the industry make sure that they play as fairly as they expect the smaller guys to play.

    From personal experience, I know that for many years the American Lung Association enjoyed the benefits of being credited by many media and consumers for holding the Great American Smokeout; a trademarked program of the American Cancer Society. And when I worked with ACS, ALA wasn’t doing a lot to dispel the inaccuracy.

    That’s not taking a swipe at them. ALA is one of my favorite public charities and they do some great things. And technically, they weren’t doing anything that infringed on copywrite at the time.

    I’m just saying that once big charities go down the road of limiting the smaller ones on this stuff, they should be prepared to play not only by the same rules…but perhaps to an even higher standard.

  • Lindsay

    Is it really “historic investments in brand and reputation?” Or is Komen is a nonprofit bully?