Why Your Nonprofit Should Obtain a Trademark for Its Name
Providing quality services. Raising funds. Promoting public awareness. Regardless of your nonprofit’s core mission, tasks like these are never far from your ever-growing list of things to do. But there’s one more thing you need to add to that list if you haven’t already, and that’s obtaining federal trademark registration for your name.
Though it may not be something that immediately comes to mind when thinking about the future of your organization, a federally registered trademark is imperative to your nonprofit’s long-term success. Without a federal trademark, you’re jeopardizing all of your organization’s hard-earned reputation and goodwill and potentially setting yourself up for a time-consuming, costly legal situation.
A Trademark Helps Protect Your Brand
It’s no secret that today’s nonprofit agencies are facing increasing competition for donation dollars. So imagine what would happen to your fundraising efforts if another nonprofit accidentally (or intentionally) started using a similar or the same name as yours? Even if they didn’t mean any harm to your organization, if your nonprofit is named “Amy’s Animals” and another nonprofit starts using “Amy’s Animal Lovers” as its name, you can bet that potential donors may be confused. But that’s not the only risk—just think of the negative publicity and backlash your organization could face if “Amy’s Animal Lovers” was accused of mistreating the pets within its care, or if a volunteer was accused of embezzling funds.
If you’ve received a federal registration for the “Amy’s Animals” trademark, the law is on your side. If the “Amy’s Animal Lovers” organization decides not to respond to your polite request that it stop using the name, you can take it to court for infringing on your trademark and potentially even sue for damages. However, if you haven't registered your trademark on a federal level, things will be a lot trickier. You can request that the other nonprofit cease and desist using its name, but if it continues on, you’ll have a much more expensive legal battle on your hands.
When you compare the relatively affordable cost of filing a trademark application against the costs associated with a legal fight, it’s easy to see why a trademark is a smart investment.
Trademarks Help Clear up Online Confusion
Network for Good’s 2014 Digital Giving Index reports that online donations continue to outpace the growth of giving overall, and online advocacy group M+R asserts that for every 1,000 website visitors, nonprofits raise an average of $612. Clearly, the online environment is one of extreme importance to nonprofit agencies, and it’s also one where having a federally registered trademark for your name could come in quite handy.
For example, imagine that you’re expanding your nonprofit’s social media presence beyond Facebook and Twitter to Instagram. But when you go on Instagram to register a page in your nonprofit’s name, you find that another organization already is using the name and is directing visitors to its website to make a donation. In this situation, resolving the issues can be as simple as filling out Instagram’s Trademark Infringement Report and including your federal trademark registration number where the form requests it. In most cases, because you can show ownership of the name in the federal trademark register, Instagram will settle the situation to your advantage by shutting down the other organization’s page and allowing you to use the name instead—but please note, you should always consult an attorney before taking any enforcement action.
But Instagram isn’t alone in relying on the federal system to decide who owns the rights to a particular name. Other social media sites, like Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest; advertising platforms, like Google AdWords; and even Etsy and eBay all look to the federal register when determining how to “rule” in these situations—which makes the trademark process all the more important for nonprofits that would prefer to avoid the need to go to court whenever possible.
Nonprofits Should Make the Trademark Process a Priority
The trademark process may not be the first task on your nonprofit’s to-do list, but it behooves you to make it a priority. By obtaining a trademark for your name, you’ll be protecting the goodwill and reputation you’re working so hard to create and maintain—and you’ll have legal recourse if you need it.
Additionally, having a trademark for your name will help avoid another brand usurping your brand’s goodwill (and donations) online. Taking the time today to get a trademark for your nonprofit name today potentially will save you money, time and headaches in the future.
Josh Gerben is U.S. trademark attorney and principal of Gerben Law Firm in Washington, D.C. Named the No. 3 U.S. trademark filer in 2009 by Trademark Insider, Josh has represented clients in more than 5,000 trademark filings with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. Josh has been a featured panelist on FOX News and has provided insights and opinions to a variety of national news outlets, including The Wall Street Journal and NPR. Learn more about trademarks on Gerben Law Firm’s blog.