The ALS Association has recently filed for two trademarks with the United State Patient and Trademark Office in regards to this summer’s viral hit, the Ice Bucket Challenge. The true origin of the ice bucket challenge is up to debate and has been most likely used before for other causes though perhaps not so highly publicized; however ALS Association is alleging it owns the rights to the phrase of “Ice Bucket Challenge.”
What is a trademark?
A trademark is legally protected words or symbols or certain other distinguishing features representing products or services. Examples are Wendy’s “Where’s the Beef?” and Disney’s “I’m going to Disney World!”
Can the ALS Association claim they own the rights to the phrase, “Ice Bucket Challenge?”
That is what they are going to have to prove to the reviewing attorney at the USPTO through a rigorous process. What that means is that in order for common words and phrases such as “Ice Bucket Challenge” to be trademarked by a person or organization they need to demonstrate that the phrase has acquired a “distinctive secondary meaning apart from its original meaning.” When we are talking about secondary meaning, it means that it identifies the phrase with a particular good or service.
ALS Association will have to be able to claim secondary meaning that when someone says “Ice Bucket Challenge” then everyone thinks of the ALS Association.
Will ALS Association be successful in trademarking the phrase, “Ice Bucket Challenge?” Hard to say. Especially since for the first two month after it was used, most people had no idea it was for ALS. They just wanted to pour ice water on themselves then challenge their friends to do the same or pay up. Often it wasn’t made clear in the videos.
And I am not going into if ALS should have filed for trademarks. From a professional viewpoint, I understand why that they would like to protect this specific and very successful fundraising vehicle for them; however, do they want to become like another Susan G Komen Foundation?
UPDATE 9/29/2014 @ 4:10pm EST – The Nonprofit Times is reporting that ALS Association has withdrawn their trademark requests.
Disclosure: I’m not a lawyer and I don’t get to even play one on TV; however, I scored really high to advertising law and ethics section of the APR and as a PR professional, it is my business to have an understanding copyright and trademark law. If you have questions about trademarking talk to a lawyer or go to USPTO.
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