During lockdown we were talking to Katie Robbins from Ceramic Magpie on instagram about intellectual property infringement, trademark theft and the toll it takes on creators and small companies.
Our story of trademark theft (or “unauthorised use of our trademark”, if you prefer)
Back in the mid-2010s a well known mental health charity used our trademark without permission in a national campaign. I will never forget the moment of discovery, scrolling on the internet one day this image stood out to me; a young man holding a sign with our trademark scrawled on underneath the prominent logo of the well known charity.
I shared it with the team – First there was denial, “maybe it’s a mistake? A one off perhaps?”, a frantic googling between us. When that had passed we felt powerless, we went to google and searched for solicitors, we rang friends to see if they could recommend anyone. We were so flustered that we can all still remember the dawning terror and overwhelm of those initial moments. The governing body couldn’t help us. By that time we had invested thousands in our trademark, we had ensured it was well researched and designed and – most importantly to us – that our work reflected this ethos.
Eventually we enlisted the help of solicitors at a cost of in the region of £500 per letter. So they dutifully wrote to the charity, informing the charity of their blatant trademark infringement. Stating that we would like acknowledgement that this trademark was ours.
We had a response from a Birmingham solicitor responded with a request for more time. Reasonable enough…or so we thought.
What happened next. . .
Two days later we received contact from an Attorney based in London. This letter threatened us with court action if we went to the press. They threatened us with a smear campaign if we dare to proceed, they belittled and demeaned our work when all we asked for was a simple acknowledgement that the trademark was ours. This could have been in size 2 text on the bottom of their webpage. No matter, the letter said. The campaign will end shortly anyway!
We froze. At this point we were doing a lot of pro bono support work in the mental health sector – late night visits to A&E with clients, support while clients were on mental health wards, advocacy for clients who had been illegally sectioned and for clients who needed their medical professionals to hear them. At no point was any representative of this charity – or any charity – there, in fact our work was so novel that A&E Dr’s and Nurses asked whether we would set it up as a national charity.
Our solicitor advised us to walk away, that the campaign was ending shortly and this was good enough. You may notice that in our writings about advocacy we often talk about “good enough”. Everyone wants that breakthrough Erin Brokovich moment in which a positive change can come from the work that you do, but the reason why those moments are so noteworthy is because they are so rare.
Why we are talking about it now
Frankly, the charity’s witting or unwitting strategy of intimidation worked. We spoke to specialist after specialist who could give us no advice either way. A PR coach who advised that everything in your life is content for your business, met our story with a noted silence.
So we used our aims to guide our practice; our aims are nonviolent and designed to support our clients. Would pursuing this story be worth it to them? Simply, no. It would detract from our resources which would in turn impact the service they received.
That well known mental health charity wasted valuable funds fighting a small company for pointing out that the charity had stolen their intellectual property. They also wasted our funds with no second thought about the impact to our company, ourselves or our clients.
Not only that; they had also rejected an opportunity to make a difference to the infrastructure of mental health support services in this country.
We are talking about it now because we have seen many other small businesses, some of whom are friends and loved ones, fall prey to infringement of their intellectual property. There is power in community and sharing our stories. As a small business owner things can feel isolating, what we must remember is our shared and common humanity. These setbacks happen but that does not mean that all is lost (even though, in our experience there is always a financial loss when your intellectual property is used without your prior consent or
But, why would a charity do this?
Many potential reasons; People often do nefarious things because they believe they are working for the “greater good” so it stands to reason that working in an organisation whose brand message is for the “greater good” is likely to be impacted by this kind of thinking, charities have funds that must be used – clearly the campaign was not well researched (or they did research it and developed a strategy of offense to make sure that they got away with it), or human error that no one wants to admit (we’ll write about cognitive dissonance in the future).
If you have worked in charity, then you will know that not all charities are equal; some are successful models that rely on government and lottery funding without actually doing the work. And we must all be mindful of any charity that chooses funding over supporting people.
Studies have shown that people may be more likely to behave dishonestly for their own benefit if they can point to benefiting others as a mitigating factor for their unethical behavior (Wiltermuth, 2011)
No Judgement® in practice
There is no difference between a large charity, celebrity or a large business stealing (taking another person’s property without permission or legal right and without intending to return it or legally acknowledge it) your intellectual property; whether you are a ceramicist, jewellery designer or social enterprise – you are a small business and you are expected to contend with giants whose pockets run deep and who will gleefully trigger your destruction. Only to chide you and demand more when you express your discontent. It is abuse, plain and simple.
As a social enterprise and a small business we stand against abuse. It is a shame that some charities and businesses do not.
We chose No Judgement® as our trademark because No Judgement® is not about lacking in discernment but about meeting ourselves and the world with compassion. A constant reminder that you, that we, that all of us are not alone. That we are all capable of far more than we imagine.
Given the many mechanisms for disengaging moral control, civilized life requires, in addition to humane personal standards, safeguards built into social systems that uphold compassionate behaviour and renounce cruelty – Bandura
An addendum: Your emails have asked where the Intellectual Property Office were in all of this. In short; the IPO are a register, they are not there to defend the register. Which begs the question – if you don’t have masses of cash to protect every infringement or illegal use of your trademark, what do you actually get from trademarking other than the opportunity to pay the IPO for keeping a register? Which would be an excellent question.