February 9, 2012
Trademarking the Church
When should churches seek legal protections for names and logos?
Editor's note: Two stories that garnered recent, widespread media attention have put the spotlight on churches and trademarks. Mars Hill Church in Seattle recently sent a cease-and-desist letter to another church over the use of a name and logo similar to its own; in Chicago, a church's trademark for a ministry has been challenged by Adidas, the athletic apparel company. We asked attorney Brock Shinen, who represents Copyright Solver and other faith-based organizations across the country, to address how churches should handle such situations.
Churches should feel confident that it's right and beneficial to register for trademark protection for their names and logos. A primary objective of trademark law is to eliminate confusion as to the source of goods or services.
A church applying for trademark protection won't necessarily take away another church's right to have its name and logo: If a church's name and logo are unique, trademark protection will be granted. If the name and logo are generic or descriptive, it won't.
When a church considers registering a name, it should come up with a unique name that truly distinguishes the church from all other churches. The problem is that most churches want to choose from the same few names. Either they want to use generic or descriptive terms (such as Anaheim Hills Community Church), and/or they want names already in use by thousands of other churches.
For Mars Hill Church in Seattle, its "brand" is not common, and it's not immediately intuitive as a reference to Christianity (unless you know the reference, which most people probably do not), so it works as a unique name. It made the news recently when another church in Sacramento, California, used a similar name and logo beginning in 2007. In that case, under trademark law, the first church to use the name (Mars Hill Church in Seattle, beginning in 1996), is entitled to priority rights. (Editor's Note: Mars Hill Church in Seattle later indicated its regret for sending a cease-and-desist letter first before contacting the Sacramento church; the Sacramento church kept its name, but changed its logo, satisfying both sides' wishes and bringing the matter to a close).
Churches should protect their trademarks, which often includes asking others to stop using conflicting marks. Otherwise, we're asking churches like Mars Hill Church in Seattle to disregard the legal rights they possess (and that disregard, incidentally, causes them to lose their rights).
If a church is on the receiving end of a cease-and-desist letter, it should ask this question: "Does the church that sent the letter have an exclusive legal right to the name?" If the answer is "yes," then why be offended? Comply. Romans 13 obligates us to submit to government laws like this.
But, there are many circumstances when churches claim rights they do not truly possess, so if a church is adequately informed, that church may righteously dispute a cease-and-desist demand. There is nothing wrong with the recipient of the cease-and-desist letter exercising its legal rights as well.
The Mars Hill Church case shows how trademark issues develop within the ministry community, but major secular organizations are taking an interest in church-trademark behavior as well. A situation pending in Chicago between a church and Adidas, a major athletic apparel company, demonstrates the need for churches to protect their trademarks. In that case, Adidas hopes to take possession of a trademark registered four years earlier by the church. It's a David-versus-Goliath scenario, because Adidas has the financial resources to strain the church into submission, but the church has the presumption of ownership (based on its existing registration).
If a church is serious about its investment in trademark protection, it should go the length to keep that protection intact. When facing an opponent like Adidas, the outcome is uncertain because of the resource disparity. However, possessing a registered trademark helps level the playing field.
Churches should actively seek protection of trademarks they seriously consider valuable to them. They also need to weigh the benefit of having protection against the cost of securing and maintaining it. Well-resourced secular companies will use their finances to leverage churches into submission, so if a church isn't prepared for the long-term investment of maintaining a trademark, it should consider whether the cost makes sense at the outset. Alternatively, when a church invests its resources in a "brand," it has every reason to protect that brand.
For more details of church copyright registration and ownership, check out the Essential Guide to Copyright Law for Churches by Richard R. Hammar.