Written by attorney Krista Nikole Robertson

Protecting the Brand: Why Non-Profits Should Register Their Trademarks

What do March of Dimes and Coca-Cola share in common? Despite the fact that one is a non-profit charity and the other is a major soft drink manufacturer and distributor, they both have distinctive names and logos that are federally registered trademarks. Trademarks and service marks are unique words and designs that represent the "brand name" or "brand identity" of an organization's products and services. Trademarks are useful tools in distinguishing the services of one organization from another.A trademark is a valuable asset that many non-profits neglect to protect. It can be used for branding and name-recognition by the general public and can be licensed to provide added income for small organizations with small budgets.

Most non-profits are chartered to provide some social benefit to a class or people or a cause. The members of the organization work hard to achieve the mission, and ensuring that the public is aware of the good works is a key goal for fund raising and effectiveness. As non-profits become prominent members in their communities, the use of their organizational logo builds the kind of brand recognition and familiarity within the public that major for-profit companies have. Consider that the logo for Amnesty International, a line drawing of a lit candle wrapped with barbed wire, is as distinctive as the McDonald's golden arches. Any program that Amnesty International participates in will include the logo in its promotional materials. In fact, the organization has a vested interest in preventing the logo from being used for programs it does not support. By law this interest can be protected with federal registration.

Why should a non-profit organization register a mark? After all, an organization can establish rights in its mark based on its legitimate usage of the mark. Common law, or state, protection of trademarks is virtually automatic, and free, but federal registration of a mark in the Principal Register can provide additional advantages unavailable at the state level:

  1. Federal Registration provides constructive notice to the public of the registrant’s claim to the mark.

  2. Federal Registration provides a legal presumption of the registrant's ownership of and exclusive right to use the mark in connection with the registered services.

  3. Federal Registration allows up to three times the amount of your actual damages in the event of proved willful trademark infringement.

Registration is identified by the familiar symbol ®. Until then, the only legitimate mark you can use to identify ownership is ™. Furthermore, there are no statutory limits as to the amount of time a mark can be used, as long as the mark is used in commerce and the maintenance fees and other procedural requirements are followed. A non-profit organization can continue to reap the benefits from registration and the goodwill associated with its mark indefinitely.

In fact, federal registration of a trademark can provide small or growing organizations the opportunity to license its logo for additional income. Companies with an interest in pursuing positive public relations campaigns can effectively partner with non-profit organizations to support charitable works or campaigns. Non-profits can license their trademark in such a partnership to allow the use of their marks on promotional materials. A license agreement can include terms for permissible uses, provisions for the nature of the permitted uses, and the duration of the allowed use to ensure that the organization's rights are protected and the partnership furthers the non-profit's goals as well.

Many non-profit organizations have successfully registered their trademarks, thereby giving them a legitimate exclusive right to their brands. After working so hard to establish a brand for the charitable services, a non-profit should rush to protect that asset through federal registration of its trademark. After all, it is easier to help protect the rights of others once one's own rights have been protected.

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