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October is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, but Who Owns the Pink Ribbon?

Posted in Trademarks

–Catlan McCurdy, Attorney

After this past Sunday’s football game, a friend asked me if the NFL owned the shade of pink that everyone on the screen seemed to have so prominently displayed. Well, full disclosure, I didn’t watch on Sunday, and I rarely do watch football – unless a party has been planned around the game, then I’m there, and I will make cupcakes decorated with your team colors and logo. Anyway, apparently everyone from players to coaches to referees was wearing pink to raise awareness of the importance of annual screenings for breast cancer, aka “A Crucial Catch.” I started thinking about the pink ribbon that has been engrained in our subconscious and if anyone owned the design mark.

Of course, when you think “pink ribbon” your next thought is “Susan G. Komen.” Susan G. Komen For the Cure was the first to use pink ribbons in connection with breast cancer awareness when the organization handed out pink ribbons to participants in its NYC race for breast cancer survivors in the fall of 1991. It is rumored that the pink ribbon was inspired by the red ribbon for AIDS awareness, and used by Komen “when you couldn’t use the words ‘breast cancer’ in public.” Things of that nature have changed since the ‘90s – thanks Janet Jackson.

It is also rumored that the pink ribbon is not owned by anyone, so you can slap the symbol on any product you want in an effort to participate in breast cancer awareness. That last part…it’s a little trickier. Organizations or individuals may have common law trademark rights in the ribbon, but a quick query on the USPTO’s TESS search engine generated 45 records for federal design marks featuring a ribbon and having the words “breast cancer” in the design description. However, all but one of the marks consisted of a word mark in addition to a design mark, such as DE-FEET BREAST CANCER WALK/RUN or LAW OF PINK FIGHTING TOGETHER. No search yielded only a pink ribbon design.

A search for live design marks owned by Komen yielded 199 results, the most interesting one of which is this design mark:

              

Komen does not own a design mark for a standalone pink ribbon. Like other organizations, Komen owns pink ribbon design marks that also consist of a word mark. The design mark above is the only mark Komen owns without a word mark combination and that looks similar to the original pink ribbon we all know today. This is the mark Komen currently uses to promote breast cancer awareness, and you can see the mark on several places on their website.

So we know where the pink ribbon ownership stands, as least in terms of federal ownership. To answer the original question, the NFL does not own any federally registered marks related to breast cancer awareness - not the color pink and not even the phrase “A Crucial Catch.” Their support, like many organizations in October, is without federal trademark involvement. Even our own building is turning pink.