Trademark Paranoia

Intellectual property protection is important for many reasons, but some organizations take trademarks a bit too far. There's a fine line between reasonably protecting a brand and being paranoid and overzealous with legal tools.

Example 1: 2010 NCAA® Division I Men's Basketball Championship Final Four®

Before we go any further, GO DAWGS! The Butler University Bulldogs play in the Final Four tourney in just a few hours, and Thursday Friday Saturday wishes the local team luck.

In February, the Indianapolis Local Organizing Committee for the Final Four sent a nearly 2,000-word memo to Indianapolis-area businesses with guidelines to help keep the city clean, remind people of permits required for special events and other activities, and to warn people not to infringe on the NCAA's trademarks.

The memo goes into extensive detail about how to use (or, rather, not use) NCAA logos and marks. One piece:

"...temporary signage and activity on or from private property, whether outdoor or extending into public right-of-ways, has a bearing on the fan experience, crowd control and safety measures.  Signage not approved by the NCAA and the City of Indianapolis may be ordered to be removed and may subject the property owner to a fine."

If you live in a condo on Mass Ave, create a piece of art honoring the Butler Bulldogs on their first Final Four appearance and use the words "GO DAWGS! Good luck in the Final Four!" and put it in your window, don't be surprised if you're asked to remove it. With good reason: shame on you for showing support for your local team! And for using the words "Final Four".

The memo goes on to provide a helpful list of 75 NCAA trademarks requiring approval before use. Want to use phrases like "Championship City", "It's the Journey", "The Road to Indianapolis", or, best/most ridiculous of all, "YES"? Think again.

Protecting one's brand makes sense. And perhaps the NCAA is simply practicing due diligence by issuing this memo. If a downtown Indy business received this email, plastered their windows with unauthorized NCAA materials, and the NCAA chose to take action, this memo would be a helpful piece of evidence saying "We warned you!"

But at the same time, some people will see these legal reminders as preemptive slaps on the wrist, a sort of Big Brother message warning people about what they may face if they dare choose to post a big sign in their apartment window that says, simply, "YES".


Typically, corporations are the most blatant about their legal powers. The NCAA and American Humane show that they aren't the only ones.


Example 2: American Humane: Be Kind to Animals Week®

American Humane Association is a national non-profit organization that protects animals, children, and their intellectual property.

The Be Kind to Animals Week (R) poster reminds us three times that the phrase is legally protected.

I received a promotional poster from them for Be Kind to Animals Week, which is trademarked and has the ® prominently attached to the tagline, which is made to appear as if it were hand-drawn by the kids manning the booth (click the image at left to see it.)

And in case we forgot, the trademark insignia is also attached to a few other instances on the poster, and to the more simple "Be Kind to Animals". It's also attached in the press kit encouraging shelters to take advantage of the Week.

The need to protect intellectual property is important and understood. But the need to relentlessly remind/warn people of this is a bit much, especially when the point of the trademarked words is to promote a good cause.

I'm not sure what would prompt American Humane to take legal action against anyone who would use the words "Be Kind to Animals Week", but I hope, for their sake, they wouldn't take legal action against another animal-welfare organization using the same words to help the cause. That would likely turn into a PR nightmare.

American Humane is also known for the "No Animals Were Harmed" piece in films featuring animals. No surprise: it's also trademarked. The organization holds a number of other trademarks as well, such as Adopt-a-Dog Month, and reminds readers relentlessly in its digital and print publications of the trademarks. I dare you to explore their website and attempt to count all of the trademark insignias. They're not only numerous, but distracting, like little speedbumps slowing the eyes and mind down.

Are these organizations being reasonable with the protection available to them? Or is it too much? Are you turned off when you see trademarks and intellectual property warnings, or could you care less? Leave your comment below.