Trademark protection is important for any business, including a nonprofit organization. If your nonprofit has a name, logo, or slogan, then you should be looking at protecting these with a federal trademark registration.
The easiest part about trademarks is that you automatically get trademark rights just from using your trademark. But those rights are limited to the geographical area where you use your trademark, which means they can be limited to a small location within a city, an entire city, an entire state, or a region.
While it’s nice to have that automatic protection, running a nonprofit organization without a federal trademark registration for your name, logo, or slogan is risky for the following reasons:
- Someone else could beat you to the punch. Any person or business can register a trademark at any time as long as they meet some minimum requirements. So while your nonprofit is busy toiling away trying to save the money to register a trademark (and save the world), another business could swoop in and register either the same or a similar trademark as yours, which means when you’re ready, you won’t be able to register your own trademark.
- You could receive a cease and desist letter or get sued. If another person or business chooses to use a trademark that is the same or similar to yours, it could try to force you to stop using your trademark. This is especially true if it registers the trademark before you do. To stop you from using the trademark, the other company could send you a cease and desist letter and even file a lawsuit against you. Now your nonprofit would have to hire an attorney to help you resolve the dispute.
- Your nonprofit organization might have to rebrand. If you get involved in a dispute over who owns the trademark, and you lose, your nonprofit may be forced to rebrand—in other words, come up with a new name, slogan, or logo. Rebranding is expensive and inconvenient. Think about all the cards, T-shirts, and Web pages that already bear your branding! Depending on the size of your nonprofit, making the change could cost anywhere between a couple thousand and ten thousand dollars.
- It may become harder for your organization to expand. As your nonprofit grows, you may want to expand into other geographical territory. A federal trademark registration gives you the right to use your trademark in all 50 states. Without a federal trademark registration, it will be difficult to go outside of the territory you’ve established for your nonprofit.
- You could miss out on an opportunity to build your nonprofit’s reputation. Having a federal trademark registration helps give legitimacy to your nonprofit organization and helps you build your brand. Having a solid brand leads to the beginning of a solid reputation, which can play an important part in building your nonprofit and raising funds for your cause. For example, if a business is prepared to pay you licensing fees to say that you have approved its product as environmentally friendly, you’d need to assure it that you can provide a recognizable name and logo that isn’t the subject of a lawsuit!
- You will miss out on valuable protections that come with a federal trademark registration. A federal trademark registration comes with valuable legal benefits, including gaining access to the federal court system to protect your trademark rights. Without the registration, your nonprofit will be limited in how it will be able to defend its trademarks.
Using trademarks that aren’t registered is a risky business. Your nonprofit could lose everything it has worked hard to build. Given the costs involved in settling disputes and rebranding, your nonprofit could even go out of business. The best way to protect your nonprofit organization is to obtain a federal trademark registration for each name, logo, and slogan you use.