Yes, Even Charitable Organizations Must Abide By U.S. Trademark Law

pillowfightPlanning a fun theme for a special charity event is an opportunity to exercise one’s creativity, attract a new audience, and . . . receive future nasty letters from lawyers.

Just ask Newmindspace, a Toronto-based nonprofit dedicated to organizing free, fun, all-ages events in places like subway cars and city streets. The organization had to change the theme of its popular lightsaber battles to the “Cats in Space Tour” after receiving a cease-and-desist letter from the attorneys at Lucasfilm (owner of the Star Wars brand).

At least the nonprofit seems to have come to an agreement without going to court or suffering direct financial losses (other than the costs of hiring its own lawyers and rebranding). A worse fate appears to have been a possibility: Newmindspace co-founder Kevin Bracken reportedly said that, after receiving the letter, the threat of a multimillion-dollar lawsuit kept him up at night.

Still, it’s a cautionary tale for any nonprofit. How do you make sure not to step on any toes?

First, understand that simply being a nonprofit is not a defense. It might help in certain situations (particularly if you’re such small potatoes that it’s not worth the larger entity’s time to go after you), but you can’t count on that. In fact, giant, unfeeling corporations aren’t even the only ones to go after trademark violators: Remember the reports of the Susan G. Komen foundation sending its lawyers after smaller charities that try to use the phrase “For the cure?”

Fortunately, simply developing some awareness of the existence of trademark and copyright laws, and how they work, will go a long way toward protecting your nonprofit from missteps.

Briefly summarized, trademark infringement occurs when someone uses the trademark or service mark of another when selling competing or related goods and services; particularly if the use might cause confusion for the average consumer. (See Nolo’s articles on Is It Trademark Infringement? for more on this.) If you’re hoping to piggyback on the success of a theme, character, or design that someone else came up with an is actively using, better think twice.

Relatedly, a copyright violation occurs when someone reproduces, distributes, adapts, or performs a work (art, literature, theatre, music, and so on) whose creator still owns the rights to it. As Nolo author Rich Stim explains, “Some people incorrectly believe that if the purpose of the infringement is not for profit, there is no infringement. For example, if a nonprofit charity uses a copyrighted character in its donation drive and mailings, the charity may be liable for infringement.”

Thankfully for Newmindspace, no one seems to have claimed trademark protection for its most popular event: International Pillow Fight Day.