If you’ve been on social media, watched a morning talk show, or basically set foot out of your house recently, it’s more than likely that you’ve heard about the “Ice Bucket Challenge” – and possibly participated in one yourself. The ALS Association, which has been a beneficiary of the Ice Bucket Challenge to the tune of nearly $100 million, recently submitted, and later withdrew, an application to trademark the term. Why?
The ALS Association (ALSA) builds awareness and raises funds for research for a cure for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS), also called Lou Gehrig’s disease, and while they didn’t initiate the Ice Bucket Challenge campaign, it’s gained traction across social media and finally into the mainstream news. By filing the application for a trademark for “Ice Bucket Challenge” and “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge,” the ALSA likely had the goal of preventing confusion with other groups using the term to their benefit.
If you’re not familiar with the Ice Bucket Challenge, it’s a series of “nominations” on video, where the participant challenges several friends to either pour a bucket of ice-cold water over their head, or donate to the ALS (or another) cause within 24 hours. Most participants choose to do both, and continue to nominate more friends via social media, building the viral chain of awareness and donations.
I mentioned “preventing confusion with other groups” above. Specifically, that means that the ALSA likely intended to prevent “for profit” businesses from co-opting the term: those that would benefit illicitly from the goodwill built up for a charitable cause. When you’re talking about an endeavor of the scale that the ALS effort has reached, there are bound to be less-admirable organizations looking to take advantage of the momentum. If ALSA had successfully filed their trademark applications for both terms, they would have had legal leverage in preventing for profit businesses from trading on the “Ice Bucket Challenge” name, and potentially diverting funds away from their legitimate mission.
That being said, the desirability of the “Ice Bucket Challenge” trademark means that there would likely have been challenges to the ALSA’s applications by other non-profit groups seeking to use the same type of challenge to raise awareness. This is where the public relations backlash against the ALSA started – many people felt it was unfair for just one charity to have the exclusive right to use this phrase. After starting to take significant critism on social media – the same medium that ALSA had just used to raise $100 million, the organization withdrew the applications to try to avoid any significant public relations backlash.
In addition, there were questions about whether or not this phrase could be trademarked by a single organization. The USPTO requires that registered trademarks not be “generic” terms, that is, terms which have such a broad definition and general use that they can’t be ascribed any one association or connection. The ALSA would have to prove that “Ice Bucket Challenge” is generally accepted to refer to a campaign related to them. It appears that the ALSA covered its bases by filing the two applications. If the USPTO did rule “Ice Bucket Challenge” to be a generic term – that it can’t be specially associated with ALS or the ALSA – it’s still possible that they may have approved the trademark for “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.” That would also set the precedent that no other group could trademark “Ice Bucket Challenge” alone, but could potentially trademark their own specific variation on it.
As with all trademark applications, the purpose of filing the mark was to prevent confusion and make sure that the general public is not being fooled – or merely confused – into putting money somewhere they didn’t intend to. With so much recognition and awareness on the table, the ALSA was likely within its rights to try and protect the brand and the goodwill that it’s attained. That being said, even if awarded the trademark, it would seem unlikely that the ALSA would try to stop other charities from using the phrase ‘ICE BUCKET CHALLENGE’. I believe the reason the trademark application was likely filed was to prevent a ‘for profit’ business from using the phrase to generate profits and not donations to a charity. Unfortunately for the ALSA, the court of public opinion required the trademark application be withdrawn.