Who knew Susan G. Komen was so litigious?

By J. DeVoy

Cynics skeptical of large “awareness-raising” organizations like Susan G. Komen for the Cure now have more to question.  Breast cancer is a serious condition – one that co-blogger Tatiana Von Tauber has dedicated much effort to fighting through The Art Cure – that affected 207,090 women last year (prostate cancer affected 217,730 men).  Some of these funds are being used to patrol smaller charities and ensure they don’t infringe on any of Susan G. Komen for the Cure’s 200 registered trademarks. (source.)

Komen’s strategy runs from demand letters to filing oppositions – “hundreds” of them – with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office when smaller charities try to register their trademarks.  For owners of intellectual property, this is fairly routine.  The long-term consequences of not patrolling and protecting a brand can lead to its devaluation into a generic or descriptive term incapable of protection.  But Komen ostensibly is a charity, rather than a commercial enterprise like Coca-Cola, so people, and especially other fundraisers, expect a more sensitive approach to IP protection.  Those people are wrong:

Mary Ann Tighe[] said the Komen foundation sent her a letter asking her to stop using the phrase “for a cure” in their title and to never use the color pink in conjunction with their fundraising. What bothered her most about the whole ordeal, she said, was that Komen forced her to spend money and time on legal fees and proceedings instead of raising funds for cancer. (source.) (emphasis added)

“For a cure” or “for the Cure,” doing anything “for” any “Cure” is begging for Komen’s attention.  For non-lawyers who just want to help their communities, that can be a harrowing experience.

Sue Prom, who started a small dog sledding fundraiser for breast cancer called “Mush for the Cure” in Grand Marais, Minn., said she was shocked to hear from Komen’s lawyers this summer asking that she change the name of her event or face legal proceedings.

“I had to call the trademark helpline, because I had no idea what I was doing,” said Prom, who runs the annual sled race with her husband and friend. “We pay for the expenses out of our pockets, and we’ve never personally made a dime from it. We have t-shirts, sweatshirts, domain names, posters, stationery, all with ‘Mush for the Cure’ on it. What do we do with all the materials now? How are we gonna defend ourselves? We’re not like Komen.” (source.)

Look at this from the cynic’s perspective: Money going to these small charities is not money that’s going to Komen.  That means less money for salaries, raises, marketing, and other administrative skimming before passing the rest on to breast cancer research.  If Komen is using large urban law firms like the article suggests, it’s also paying approximately $300 per hour for a first-year associate to hunt down and stop this putative infringement.

But the goal of Susan G. Komen for the Cure isn’t to shut down other charities.  In fact, they can be downright reasonable in granting limited releases of their precious intellectual property.

With the help of a team of pro bono lawyers, Kites for a Cure was able to reach a settlement with Komen: They agreed to only use the phrase “for a Cure” in conjunction with the words “lung cancer” to make the distinction clear. But Tighe said they reached a settlement only after many, many months of a free legal team working long hours each day. (source.)

Unfortunately, this conduct leaves people feeling jaded and bitter about an important issue.  Not only does the expenditure of legal counsel reduce the amount of money being used for research, but the resulting negative public relations adversely affects charitable donations to these organizations and possibly in the aggregate.

Protecting brands and not being a jackass aren’t mutually exclusive goals.  Maybe a financial hit will chasten Susan G. Komen for the Cure and teach them that lesson without other charities having to suffer.

H/T: Chuck Ross

8 Responses to Who knew Susan G. Komen was so litigious?

  1. Jay says:

    Komen is a big, fat, sloppy c*nt. (Am I allowed to say this? Has anyone trademarked c*nt, yet? (Outside of the U.S., of course.) It’s c*nts like her that make me ashamed to work in IP. If Komen ever gets Alzheimers, I’ll never contribute another cent to that cause, I swear it.

    I’ll understand if you have to delete this post. But christ, this is not what IP should be about, and any trademark attorney who supports Komen should take a long, hard look in the mirror and ask themselves: “Am I a piece of shit or what?”

    • Harry Mauron says:

      Sue is dead (of, um, breast cancer).

      Your beef is with her sister, the Founder/CEO Nancy “G.” Brinker and GC Jonathan Blum (who went in-house immediately upon failing to make partner at Weil, Gotshal).

    • Paul says:

      I think it was the late Dr. Lewis Thomas, author of “Lives of a Cell” and many other splendid “notes of a biology-watcher” for the lay audience, who, at a Waldorf banquet honoring upon his retirement as Director of Research at Sloane-Kettering, shocked his fawning audience by announcing “more of us live off cancer than ever died from it!” His point: the ‘Big C’ gets a disproportionate amount of both the research and prevention health-care dollar.

      Ask any smoker why smoking is bad and they will invariably say ‘cancer’. Not cardiovascular disease, the number one cause of smoking-related morbidity and mortality, and not COPD, which is far and away the ugliest. At least most lung cancers kill fast and relatively painlessly. Emphysema is suffocating by degrees: it is one of the most painful deaths I know of.

      For every twenty dollars spent on breast cancer research, one is spent on prostate cancer. This disparity only reflects the fact that women are more pro-active about their health then men: that’s why they live longer. A urologist I know said “we need to elect a congress full of women and start screaming ‘you’re not spending enough money on my disease!'”

      Personally I recon all that pink gear in terms of mosquito nets for children in Indonesia, South America, Africa, etc. Millions of deaths every year preventable by a $0.50 precaution.

  2. Jim says:

    I believe that Susan G. Komen is one of the largest lobbing groups in Washington and like most of these large groups exist just to exist or in this case for powerful politicans wives have a place to work. The purpose of the group might be the 4th or 5th most important thing these groups do after being a way to funnel money to a Senator in the form of a paycheck to his wife, a place to network and go to parties in DC, raising money to show how powerful they are than maybe spending money to “raise awareness”. Speaking of which who does not no about breast cancer at this point?

    • J DeVoy says:

      To that point: Why does the NFL kowtow to this every October? Men need to know about prostate cancer. It’s infectious at a rate nearly equal to breast cancer, and just as threatening to sexuality. Unlike women, though, men are less likely to seek out and engage medical help. See http://www.highbeam.com/doc/1G1-107836730.html

      I don’t know how you can make prostate cancer awareness fun – everyone seems to like boobs, while talking about male sexual function is kind of creepy – but that seems much more appropriate for the NFL than yet another breast cancer awareness push.

      • Chuck says:

        J DeVoy:

        Thanks for the hat tip. Pertaining to the NFL and breast cancer awareness – Hawaiian Libertarian commented on my post on that topic back in October. He pointed out that there is big money in mammograms and that Susan G. Komen and the NFL were engaging in mutually beneficial exchange by focusing on breast cancer. The NFL has already fully tapped the male audience therefore addressing men’s health issues would do nothing to increase ratings or bring a new demographic into the fold. Susan G. Komen and other BCA campaigns would get a lot of money from raising awareness for their cause.

        The funny thing, though, is that the BCA groups and the NFL are addressing women’s health by tying it to men who are smashing each others skulls in.

  3. [...] Charity: I’ve run in the Race for the Cure. So that money goes for administrative costs and for research, right? Uh…some of it goes to attorneys who…threaten others who use “for the Cure” in their e… [...]

  4. Wow, that’s fucked. This further galvanizes my belief that donating money is for suckers.


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