The ALS Association has put a damper on the wildly successful “Ice Bucket Challenge” fundraiser after filing applications with the US Patent and Trademark Office in an attempt to trademark the contest’s title.  Given that the viral campaign began well before the ALSA became involved, public response to the trademark claims was swift and negative, causing the non-profit to withdraw its applications just two days after the filing was made public.

The “Ice Bucket Challenge,” which has spread like wildfire on social media since late July, dares participants to dump ice water over their heads on camera within twenty-four hours of being nominated by a friend or family member, or if they get cold feet, to make a donation to the ALSA.  Most people (or Muppets, as the case may be) do both.  Participants then challenge others to take part, with the result being that the ALSA has received worldwide support in its campaign to raise money and awareness for amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a progressive neurodegenerative disease also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.  Dozens of celebrities, from Stephen King to Dolly Parton, have gotten wet for the good cause, and in thirty days the ALS Association received just over $100 million from more than three million donors.  That figure is thirty-six times the $2.8 million the Association raised during the same time period in 2013.

Due to the great success of the campaign, the ALS Association sought to secure rights to the phrase “Ice Bucket Challenge” as it relates to charitable giving.  The Association filed two trademark applications with the USPTO on August 22 for “Ice Bucket Challenge” and for “ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.”  Trademark attorney Erik Pelton, who is credited with bringing public attention to the applications, highlighted the chilling effect of the filing, likening it to attempts by businesses and individuals to trademark the phrase “Boston Strong” after the 2013 marathon bombings. Pelton noted several reasons why ALSA’s claim was inappropriate, namely that the Association did not create the phrase, and that the phrase does not readily signify a connection to the Association in light of its widespread use by other charities.  Additionally, if the ALSA were to be successful in registering the phrase, Pelton observed that the Association would be entitled to limit its use by other charitable organizations.

Before withdrawing its applications, the ALS Association took to Twitter to justify its decision to take the trademark plunge.  The non-profit remarked that it had “secur[ed] the blessings of the families who initiated the challenge this summer” prior to beginning the trademark application process, and that it had acted in “good faith” after learning that “for-profit businesses were creating confusion by marketing ALS products in order to capitalize on this grassroots charitable effort.”  Whether or not the ALSA had honorable intentions or a valid claim for trademark, the organization withdrew its applications soon after receiving criticism from the public.  In doing so, it appeared to honor the wishes of the people responsible for its success, and in the spirit of its own campaign, poured cold water on itself for a good cause.

Kate Dutcher

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