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