— Jessica Gutierrez Alm, Attorney
Branding a social movement is tricky. Many individuals following (and leading) social movements tend to view IP rights as antithetical to the spirit of the movement itself. Moreover, success in the PTO for these types of marks is by no means guaranteed. The purpose of a trademark being to identify a source for goods or services, efforts to register the names of social movements are often met with refusals for failure to function as a trademark.
Organizers of the Women’s March held in Washington, D.C. last year are facing opposition in their attempt to register the brand name. Shortly after the march itself, Women’s March, Inc. filed to register WOMEN’S MARCH as a trademark. The proposed mark is for use with certain clothing items and for promotion and lobbying services related to women’s rights, LGBTQ rights, and racial equality. The application faced two Office Actions, including one refusal for failure to function as a trademark. Women’s March, Inc. overcame the refusals, and the mark published for opposition in March 2018.
Several parties have now expressed an interest in challenging the mark. Organizers of fourteen so-called “sister marches” across the country filed an extension seeking additional time to oppose the mark. Women’s March Los Angeles also filed a letter of protest challenging the mark as generic. The protest letter included evidence pointing to genericness of the phrase, such as Wikipedia articles discussing the 1789 “Women’s March on Versailles” and the 1956 “Women’s March” in South Africa.
The groups opposing the WOMEN’S MARCH mark cite fears that Women’s March, Inc. will use the trademark to charge licensing fees and severely restrict usage of the mark by smaller march organizers. Women’s March, Inc., however, maintains that filing the mark is a “matter of course.” Bob Bland, co-president of Women’s March, Inc. stated: “We have to be able to control it or else anyone could use it. We need to be able to protect the brand, which represents the Unity Principles and is rooted in Kingian Nonviolence.”
While a registered trademark can help a movement shape and protect its identity, movement organizers seeking to protect their brands should consider the potential backlash in both obtaining and enforcing IP rights. Attempts to protect the brand may appear exploitative and cause divisions within the movement.
Interestingly, I did not find any trademark applications or registrations for the Women’s March three faces logo, which appears prominently in the company’s branding. Organizers might have more success (and face less backlash) seeking protection for the logo than for the standard character mark alone.