Susan G. Komen fights for trademark

Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure logo


Kai Ryssdal: Different nonprofits may share similar missions -- raising money for good causes. But whatever you do, don't mess with anybody's trademarks. Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure, the breast cancer charity, has warned some groups to stay away from its trademarked phrase, "race for the cure." And look out out if you want to use the color pink.

Janet Babin reports now from North Carolina Public Radio.

Janet Babin: Susan G. Komen For the Cure has put other charities on notice: Don't use the phrase "for the cure." The foundation has launched a legal battle against groups that also use the slogan, like Bark for the Cure. And Kayaks for the Cure.

Corporations protect their brands all the time. But when charities do it...

Jennifer Jenkins: They may risk alienating the public they're trying to serve.

That's Jennifer Jenkins. She's director of the Center for the Study of the Public Domain at Duke Law School. Jenkins says generic, descriptive phrases can't be trademarked.

But if consumers see something -- even a phrase -- and associate it with a particular company or nonprofit? It can be protected by law. Jenkins says the phrase "for the cure" is a toss up.

Jenkins: Susan G. Komen Race for the Cure certainly, but "for the cure" alone? To me that seems to come pretty close to saying that other charities can't seek a cure for their diseases, and that would be a concern.

Komen's general counsel Jonathan Blum says that the foundation protects its trademarks as a matter of financial stewardship and that the group wants to avoid confusion. A mix-up could mean a sizable donation, landing on another charity's books.

I'm Janet Babin for Marketplace.

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Gina I
Great story about your daughter and the hats. I have lost a few freiend to breast cancer and have a couple more that have made it thru, knock on wood. Was thinking about doing something like this and donating proceeds to a cancer research charity or center. What was the final outcome? Did SBK come after you or your daughter?

No problem......." Find The Cause".......... That's what the real goal should be.

I just returned from a meeting with representatives from many different rare disease groups. Several had received Komen 'nasty-grams.' None of these diseases have any connection to breast cancer--AT ALL. None pose even the slightest threat to the Susan B. Komen group. For Komen's lawyer to suggest that people might 'accidentally' send donations to one of these groups because they will be confused by the phrase 'the cure' is absurd. I support finding 'the cure' for breast cancer, but don't agree that it is the only disease that is important enough to merit using the phrase ‘for the cure,’ which Komen apparently has been (inexplicably) allowed to trademark. Trademark your name or the name of a specific event? Fine. Trademark a phrase used in the public domain by millions for decades? Ridiculous and another example of how US trademark, patent and intellectual property laws are irretrievably broken.
At this meeting where I heard numerous stories about the misery Komen was visiting on smaller groups who could not afford to retain legal counsel, I had already decided that my days of donating to Komen were over—primarily because I really despise bullies. In addition, one has to seriously question the governance of an organization whose board was unable to assess the potential threat to the org of the inherent, unmitigated PR disaster being exposed as bullies would bring. This is not rocket science and they absolutely failed in their fiduciary duty to protect the ‘brand’ they claim to be trying to protect. They appear to be suffering from an excess of hubris and to have lost sight of their real purpose. In an effort to squeeze every last nickel from the donating public by undermining the missions of other orgs, they have probably cost themselves millions in donations.
Then again, maybe not. This is the problem with the overly close media relationship with big, influential charities. Many media outlets 'partner' with Komen, LiveStrong and other big multi-million dollar charities rendering them incapable of truly providing appropriate due diligence when assessing the activities of these organizations. Being a charity does not ensure these groups act charitably and they should be subject to no less scrutiny for their business practices than any other form of corporation. Sadly, this doesn’t happen and this is a big problem. In fact, I was struck by what appears to be a very favorable slant in titling this article, which suggests that Komen is some type of victim, needing to 'fight' to protect their trademark when, in fact, they are using their trademark as a cudgel to beat up on a smaller charities. The article itself seemed balanced, but the headline certainly seems to be slanted in favor of Komen. Why?
Just as a reality check, there are 28 million Americans with cancer--all types--who would no doubt also like to be engaged in a search ‘for the cure.’ Cancer research is, comparatively speaking, well-funded in this country. In contrast, there are 35 million Americans with rare disorders--many of which receive no public funding for desperately needed research. Here are the numbers: The National Cancer Institute has an annual budget of $5.1 billion to provide research for 28 million patients, or about $182 per American with cancer. The Office of Rare Diseases Research has an annual budget of $16 million to support research for the 35 million Americans with a rare disease, which amounts to a little less than .50 cents per affected individual. Rare disorders, even though they collectively affect more Americans than cancer does, go virtually ignored in the federal research pie so they must rely on donations from very small constituent groups. These groups, existing on crumbs, are also searching ‘for the cure' for their loved ones and the tiny pots of research money they can come up with are frequently the only hope for generating desperately needed research. These often debilitating, devastating and fatal conditions are already orphans in the medical research arena, receiving far less than other diseases. But the Komen people appear to feel that even the crumbs are too much and citing fear that people will ‘accidentally’ donate to one of these diseases when they really meant to donate to Komen (I have never heard of someone ‘accidentally donating to the Vasculitis Foundation—one of the small groups who received a Komen nasty-gram—when they really meant to donate to Komen) make it a point to come along and give them an extra kick while they’re down. By threatening small groups who do not have the resources to defend themselves in court and interfering with their communication to their constituent groups, the Komen position actually threatens the very existence of these orgs. Maybe that's not their intent, but either way it is reprehensible, it is morally repugnant and they should be called out publicly for it.
It’s clear that Komen has been, in some sense, victims of their own success and that a number of competing breast cancer groups have abused the pink ribbon campaign, etc. They have some legitimate grievances, so by all means they should aggressively go after actual offenders. That is not what Komen is doing, though. Instead they have adopted a blanket policy that allows them to pick on any group representing any disease that also has as its mission finding 'the cure,' regardless of whether these groups pose a true threat to them or not. There is simply no legitimate excuse for their current bullying.
But lest we blame Komen alone for uncharitable behavior, though, it’s good to remember that there are other big non-profits who also engage in behavior more suited to morally and ethically-challenged corporate thugs (don't forget who overwhelming serves on the boards of these non-profit behemoths). And let's not forget the stupidity of trademark and patent laws that allow these bullies to claim what should clearly be in the public domain as their own. Komen is just the latest in a string of reports of charities acting uncharitably. Regardless of what Komen’s lawyers contend, they simply don’t ‘own’ the color pink and they most certainly do not ‘own’ the right to exclusively search ‘for a cure.’ They have over-reached here and have, as a result, revealed their bullying nature. This demonstrates a failure of leadership and of corporate character and it will hurt them in the end.

My daughter had hot pink "trucker hats" made with a pink ribbon and the initials of a friend of her's mother in the ribbon in honor of her recent passing from breast cancer & sold them at a outrigger race in Cali. She sold them for what it cost to have them made and shipped. It was strictly done to honor a woman who fought the fight to show their support & not as a fund raiser. It was very awesome to see so many pink hats on the beach with scores of people asking her how they could get one. After all her work, I started worrying about possible trademark infringement since we live in a society ran by attorneys. Low & behold, I found this story. The hats were a smashing success because of the heartfelt desire to help those touched by cancer. I feel that the SGK Foundation WAS ADVISED BY COUNSEL to challenge this. Attorneys try to figure out any way they can to suck money from their clients. People need to think for themselves and quit listening to these freakin' attorneys & may SGK just know that they did a good thing by making pink synonymous with raising funds for cancer-any cancer, smile & beam with pride knowing just how BIG it has become & walk away. After all it is what Susan would want,isn't it?

My wife happens to be a cancer patient, breast cancer and we have been actively involved in raising funds for years for breast cancer research and awareness. I am familiar with the Susan G. Komen organization and I am sure it's great. I do think they go too far to think they have some rights to the phrase "for the cure" or the color pink. That's just wrong.

I walk for American Cancer Societys "Relay For Life" we raise money for all cancers. Our color is purple. I have worn the pink color with the cancer ribbon on it, as people have given me them as gifts and I have even bought them myself and I do know that it supports Susan G Komen but i have always felt that if they only want to do Breast Cancer that is fine. I will be destroying all of my pink ribbon items. Cancer is cancer it is important to fight for all types of cancer. I don't want to have to see people young and old alike to suffer. Thru Relay For Life money there are less people suffering in the world. Anyone who is upset by Susan G. Komen doing what they are doing. The American Cancer Soietys Relay For Life would love to have you join us with our fight.

I think this is rediculous!! Every bit of money that the Susan G. Komen foundation gets,(above what the NECESSARY expences are, should go to research and a CURE..opps. To try and keep others from using the term is a black eye to the foundation as far as I'm concerned. Shame on the people that started this non-sense!! From now on, all of my donations will be directed to the Cancer Society that works for all cancers. I think the foundation should reconsider this idea!!

I have recently run into this. My organization is called FOCUS on the Cure. Hopefully SGK isn't planning on taking it a step further and acting like they coined the word "cure". Then we're all screwed.

This makes me sick. I do not and have never support this charity because it isolates 1 cancer from the rest. I rather fight for a cure to ALL Cancers but this lawsuit just seals the deal for me. I fight for the American Cancer Society as an Community Event Chair for Relay For Life. ACS fights ALL cancers and does alot more for the community than SK. Further more, ACS has been involved in every major medical break through regarding cancer treatment. I'm sick of the Pink Movement personally because Breast cancer isn't the only cancer nore is it even the most deadly cancer anymore. I wear Purple which supports ALL cancers. SK has done nothing but take money and say they are finding a cure. What else do they do? What other programs to they have to give back to the community. I support and fight for all our survivors and all those fighting any cancer out there


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