August 31, 2012

The Fight Over Trademarking the Term 'Social Enterprise'

The United States Patent and Trademark Office rejected’s request to trademark the term, “social enterprise”—and the nonprofit Social Enterprise Alliance wants to make sure the agency doesn’t change its mind.

The alliance is calling on supporters to write letters supporting the trademark office’s denial of the application during its comment period, which ends September 9.

In the United States and around the world, tens of thousands of businesses whose primary goal is social or environmental good use the term social enterprise, says Kevin Lynch, chief executive of the Social Enterprise Alliance.

“If somebody gets a trademark on it, the ability of individual organizations to continue doing their work under the banner of social enterprise all of the sudden is very much diminished,” he says. “One private company could control the use of that phrase.”

'Different Sectors'

In a blog post about the controversy, the software giant said it seeks to register the trademark only in the information-technology sector.

“When it comes to trademarks, businesses or organizations in different sectors can use the same trademark,” a spokesman for the company wrote. “ does not own or intend to own the trademark rights for the term social enterprise within the nonprofit sector, and is not seeking to restrict descriptive uses of the phrase by others in philanthropy, social responsibility, community involvement, or mission-driven organizations.”

Mr. Lynch isn’t satisfied with the company’s position: “There are many social enterprises already operating in the computer and software spaces for which is specifically attempting to secure the mark.”

The trademark office requires that public comments be submitted on paper. The Social Enterprise Alliance is collecting digital letters from supporters until Wednesday, September 5, at 1 p.m. Central time, which it will then deliver to the trademark office in printed form. also applied to trademark the term in Great Britain, Jamaica, and the European Union. Social Enterprise UK is leading the international effort to oppose the trademark applications.