(Bill Gates putting his own spin on the ice bucket challenge)

So there is a thing called the ice bucket challenge. In case you haven’t heard of it, you can read about it here (while you’re at it, you may want to read up on the internet, color television, and greek yogurt). In fact, Matt Kucharski discussed the branding/marketing aspects of the challenge last week, but what about the trademark aspects? Is it a protectible trademark and, if so, who owns it? Most people appear to associate the ice bucket challenge with the ALS Association (“ALSA”), which has raised more than $100 million.

With that kind of revenue, its not surprising that the ALSA filed applications to register the marks ICE BUCKET CHALLENGE and ALS ICE BUCKET CHALLENGE. Unfortunately, there was a bit of a backlash and, in less than a week, the ALSA voluntarily withdrew the applications.

As Erik Pelton pointed out on his blog, the ALSA may have faced some legal hurdles in order to claim and obtain registered rights in the two marks. The ALSA does use the two marks on the website to help fundraise, but the general public may not necessarily associate the marks exclusively with the ALSA. Although, based on the sheer size of the donations, it appears that the majority of those taking the ice bucket challenge do make some association between the marks and the ALSA. Another issue though is whether the ALSA is the first to have used the mark. Slate magazine put together a good piece addressing whether the ALSA was the first to use the marks (spoiler: nope). The article tracks the possible connections with similar “cold stuff challenges” that preceded the ice bucket challenge, such as cold water challenges, ice challenges, polar plunges, and general “do something stupid and/or dangerous then put it on YouTube” challenges.

The ice bucket challenge has a number of critics, either because they consider it “narcissism disguised as altruism”, or because it is a waste of perfectly drinkable water. But others have used the success to highlight other important issues. Personally, I found Orlando Jones’ challenge video along with the “rubble challenge” videos/concepts to be particularly impactful. (more ideas here)

Given all the third-parties that have used the ice bucket challenge (or similar challenges) for fundraising efforts, both before and after the ALSA, it is not surprising that the public was generally displeased with the ALSA for filing the trademark applications. However, the ALSA’s concern for third-parties profiting from the ice bucket challenge is very real. There are numerous, different types of products for sale, many of them specifically mentioning ALS. It certainly isn’t inconceivable that those purchasing these products assume there is some connection with the ALSA or, at the very least, that part of the proceeds will go toward fighting ALS.

Given both the legal landscape and the court of public opinion, it appears that abandoning the applications was the best move for the ALSA. The general public will need to be aware of to whom they donate and from whom they purchase any products that appear to be associated with a particular organization. I’ll admit though, I wish somebody could claim exclusive ownership to the ice bucket challenge in order to get this Ice Bucket Challenge Halloween Costume taken down. Even if it doesn’t violate anyone’s trademark rights, it violates my core notions of what should exist.