Three Reasons Why Aggressive Trademark Protection Hurts Sustainability

Trademark controversy has been all over the place lately. The case that’s making the rounds most recently is over the term Urban Homesteadingtm, which is being aggressively protected by the Dervaes family. Most of the press has, at best, questioned the family’s motives and at worst called them “ridiculous” “victory garden thieves.”

Behind the scenes, a whole host of other trademark debates have been taking place, right in my inbox. I’m not going to name names, but organizations large and small—ones you’ve definitely heard of and ones you definitely haven’t—have been writing to us at TriplePundit to demand that we add that little tm to their names, or better yet remove the use of their names all together. This seems quite odd to me because in the instances in question, we’re generally giving these folks positive press.

The most recent example, and the one which prompted this post, comes from a tiny organization that has trademarked a common adjective+noun combination in our space. I’m not going to link to their website, because when I went to check it out yesterday I saw that the company’s webpage was displaying a visitor counter and they had an impressive 15 visitors. If I were to link to them it’s likely we’d give them the traffic boost of the century. I made the edit requested by the owner, who wrote back thanking me and inviting me to join a linked-in group. Pretty odd and clueless, right?

For you, Mr. adjective+noun, and all you other would-be threatening letter writers, here are three reasons why behavior like this is really hurting our movement:

It stifles collaboration

One of the reasons I am so passionate about sustainability is because it represents a new way of doing business. TriplePundit is a small firm and every day we collaborate with other small companies on projects and ideas. We couldn’t do what we do without partners. It’s a new world, one in which new innovations are developed every day. That means that occasionally a brainstorming session leads to someone actually turning an idea we collaborated on into an initiative or company all on their own. I applaud that. I’ve got my hands full with what I’m working on now, and if you have the time and means to turn one of my creative rants into a working prototype, more power to you.

A world with agressive trademark protection is a world where people are scared to share. If you’re scared to share your ideas for fear that someone might steal them, fewer ideas will be voiced and fewer great companies will be created.

It actually dilutes brand value

As a media company, we have the ability to give publicity to great sustainable companies. We’re glad to do so. It’s our little way to help the movement, and the goodwill from helping other companies in our field always comes back around to help us as our network sends us leads, potential writers and even prospective sponsors.

My first contact with Mr. adjective+noun was not so positive. His company might be the next big innovation, but it’s going to take a lot for me to overcome my first glance and really spend time getting to know it. Frankly, there are a million entrepreneurs out their with more collaborative attitudes and I’d rather put my working hours into supporting them.

Brand value is an ephemeral thing. It’s very difficult to build a good reputation and very easy to destroy it. Threatening letters from lawyers are a good way to give potential partners a bad taste in their mouths. Just look at Monster Cable, a company which has surely spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on trademark protection, only to be banned by tech blogs like Engadget for their agressive and idiotic approach to brand management.

It’s a huge waste of time and money

The most amazing thing about trademark protection on the internet is how time consuming it is. Think about how many blog posts are published every day. Some poor intern, marketing assistant, or legal department flak is charged with reading through all those google alerts every day, finding the email of someone at the blog, drafting a letter, citing the example, and following up to be sure they’ve complied with the cease+desist. If the blog owner ignores the threatening letter, next up is a more threatening letter, perhaps drafted by a real, expensive, lawyer. If the blog still doesn’t comply, it’s lawsuit time.

We’re talking about thousands of employee hours spent on something that really just dilutes brand value.

What if firms put that staff energy into more positive pursuits like sustainability initiatives and the promotion of them, and perhaps a bit of collaboration? I bet the employees would be a lot happier with that kind of work and the firm would get a ton of positive press for their efforts.

Don’t get me wrong. I know trademarking has an important role in our world.
It protects consumers from confusion and can protect brand value when handled correctly. We’ve got our trademarks in place just like any wise company, and if anyone else sprung up calling themselves Triple Pundit, they’d hear from us.

With that said, am I too idealistic to think that sustainable businesses should take a long view on how they protect their brands and build value? What do you think?

Jen Boynton

Jen is editor in chief of TriplePundit. She has an MBA in Sustainable Management from the Presidio Graduate School and lives in Oakland with her husband and normally happy baby. 
Hit her up at on twitter @jenboynton to discuss diapering strategies or sustainability reporting methodology.