Nonprofits’ Use Legal Action to Protect Copyrights a Double Edged Sword

photo - unsocial media by Automotive SocialNonprofits in some ways are much like businesses. They need to raise revenues, control costs, have client bases they need to satisfy and they must create and defend their brands. Just like for profit businesses a nonprofit organization can use legal action against another entity if their trademarks have been violated. But just like businesses with litigation comes possible public relations issues.

Two nonprofits are in the news for their aggressive trademark and copyright protection approaches, Susan G. Komen for the Cure and the Wounded Warrior Project.

Komen’s major fundraising events nationwide are their “races” for a cure for breast cancer, which are long distance walks where participants obtain donations and businesses sponsor the events. Komen’s logo is a pink ribbon which has also become popular. It has over 200 registered trademarks. Given their success others have gotten on the “for the cure” bandwagon and Komen is fighting back, according to the Stanford Social Innovation Review.

Komen is trying to find possible trademark violators and has threatened hundreds of non-profits with legal action if the alleged violations don’t stop. The Huffington Post reports that organizations involved with Kites for a Cure, Par for The Cure, Surfing for a Cure and Cupcakes for a Cure have been targeted. Kites for a Cure was warned not only not to use “for a cure” but also the color pink. Those organizing the “Mush for a Cure” sought to trademark their name only to have it opposed by Komen.

Komen has worked hard to promote and make money from its brand and trademarks so it’s not surprising they want to protect that intellectual property, especially if it might lead to unauthorized use of trademarks by those who may use donations not “for a cure” but for personal gain while duped donators blame Komen. But Michael Mercanti, an intellectual property lawyer quoted by the Post said he is surprised by the hundreds of trademark oppositions Komen has filed against other charities, a number that might be expected from a major corporation.

“They could actually be seen as being a bully,” Mercanti is quoted as saying. “They’re going to alienate some donors who don’t appreciate them stepping on smaller, worthwhile charities.” While Komen spends about a million dollars a year in legal fees organizations whose trademarks they oppose may only have hundreds or thousands of dollars at their disposal and need volunteer attorneys to address these trademark issues.

The Wounded Warrior Project (WWP) also has a reputation for sharp elbows when it comes to veterans’ charities using the words “wounded warrior” and any depiction of a soldier helping a wounded comrade. Keystone Wounded Warriors in Pennsylvania total annual revenue was just over $200,000 in 2013 but over two years its legal fees were about $72,000 to defend itself from legal actions filed by WWP, whose annual revenues in 2015 were $375 million, according to the Daily Beast.

Any nonprofit actively engaged in litigation needs to understand that though there are many possible benefits there are also potential costs, including bad publicity which may be especially bad if other issues are in the news and not putting the organization in a good light.

If an Orange County nonprofit you’re involved with is thinking about or engaged in intellectual property dispute contact our office so we can talk about the situation, how the laws may apply and what the organization can do to protect its rights and interests.