ALS Association withdraws controversial applications to trademark ‘ice bucket challenge’


Members of the Tyler Fire Department dump buckets of ice on Mayor Martin Heines, center, his daughter, Isabelle, 8, and wife, Michelle, last week in front of City Hall in Tyler, Tex. (Sarah A. Miller/Tyler Morning Telegraph via Associated Press)

Update (Saturday, August 30): With controversy swirling, the ALS Association announced that it would withdraw its applications to trademark the phrases “ice bucket challenge” and “ALS ice bucket challenge.” The group posted a note to Facebook on Friday explaining its decision:

We’ve received several messages regarding the trademark applications we filed. We filed for these trademarks in good faith as a measure to protect the Ice Bucket Challenge from misuse after consulting with the families who initiated the challenge this summer. However, we understand the public’s concern and are withdrawing the trademark applications. We appreciate the generosity and enthusiasm of everyone who has taken the challenge and donated to ALS charities.

The charity also announced on Friday that it’s taken in more than $100 million in donations in the past month, which the organization largely credits to the challenge.

Original Post (Thursday, August 28):The ALS Association has raked in more than $94 million in donations from the ice bucket challenge in just under a month. Now, the organization is asking for something else: Trademarks to the phrases “ice bucket challenge” and “ALS ice bucket challenge.”

One trademark attorney calls the effort “shameful.”

Two trademark applications, filed last week, claim that the ALS Association owns the phrases for the purposes of charitable giving. Both applications are available for public viewing on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office Web site, here and here.

Trademark attorney Erik Pelton spotted the applications  Wednesday. “I was upset,” he told The Post. “Similar to the reaction I had last year when I saw the applications for ‘Boston Strong.’ “

The latter phrase was a popular rallying cry in the wake of the Boston Marathon bombings.

While Pelton believes that the “ice bucket challenge” trademark applications will probably be rejected, the applications themselves were enough for the Virginia-based attorney to draw attention to them on his blog. “The reasons in general one seeks to protect a trademark is to prevent others from using it,” Pelton said in an interview Thursday. “I find this to be shameful, because I hope that they would never consider … preventing some other charity from using the phrase.”

In his blog post about the application, Pelton writes that he’s “not sure they can claim real ownership” of the phrases in question, pointing out that “many others have taken the challenge in the name of (and/or contributed to) other charities.” In the interview, he added: “It’s been great to raise awareness and money.”

If the applications are approved, Pelton said the charity could use the registration to try and take other groups to court who use it without its permission; to take control of social media accounts using the phrases “ice bucket challenge” or “ALS ice bucket challenge”; and to “potentially stop other charities from using it.”

In an e-mailed statement to The Post, the ALS Association defended its trademark applications, noting that the charity only applied “after seeing many examples of unscrupulous profiteers trying to drive revenue to themselves, instead of the fight against ALS.”

The Post recently took a look at some of the “ice bucket challenge” commodities on the market, including a Halloween costume, several T-shirts and a pin. Profits from those products don’t necessarily go to towards ALS research, or to any other charity.

From LeBron James to Justin Timberlake to Oprah Winfrey, watch 17 celebrities dump icy water over their heads to raise awareness and money for the ALS Association. (Jhaan Elker/The Washington Post)

Other critics of the trademark applications noted that the ice bucket challenge did not originate with the ALS Association, although its exact origins are somewhat in dispute. The challenge has been used to raise money for other charities and causes, including funding for a hospice in Florida.

In its statement, the ALS Association added that it “secured the blessing of the families who initiated the challenge” before filing the trademark applications.

The ALS Association isn’t the only charity challengers have donated to in recent weeks: As Mashable reported, when the challenge caught on in early June, on Facebook, it wasn’t specifically about ALS. That particular association began in July.

On its application, the ALS Association says the first use of both phrases was “at least as early as” Aug. 4.

Although we’ll have to wait for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to rule on the applications, there might be a clue in how the federal office handled all those “Boston Strong” trademark filings. Earlier this year, the USPTO rejected several applications for the phrase, including one from the makers of Sam Adams beer.

Here’s the full statement from the ALSA:

The ALS Association is beside itself with gratitude to the millions of people who have participated in the Ice Bucket Challenge, and particularly grateful to the families who should fairly be credited with making the campaign go viral. The ALS Association took steps to trademark the Ice Bucket Challenge after seeing many examples of unscrupulous profiteers trying to drive revenue to themselves, instead of the fight against ALS. We secured the blessing of the families who initiated the challenge, which they provided without hesitation. The Association did this as a good faith effort to protect the integrity of the Ice Bucket Challenge. We are intent on preventing for-profit companies from capitalizing on this amazing, almost wholly grass-roots, and charitable campaign to raise money and awareness for the fight against ALS.

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[This post has been updated.]

Abby Ohlheiser is a general assignment reporter for The Washington Post.
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