Protecting Your Nonprofit’s Name, Logo, & More: Trademarks and Copyrights for Nonprofits

Are you looking to protect your nonprofit’s name, logo, or other intellectual property? 

Much like their for-profit counterparts, nonprofits can trademark or copyright certain materials. While the most common instance we see is a nonprofit looking to trademark their name, we also see nonprofits request to protect their logo, copyright their curriculums, or other works written by the organization. In this article, we’ll discuss the differences between a trademark and a copyright, and how your organization may benefit from either one. 

If you’d like to speak with one of our nonprofit attorneys to see how we can help with a trademark or copyright for your nonprofit, reach out to us here. 

What’s the difference between a trademark and a copyright?

Trademarks generally apply to names and logos, whereas copyrights refer to the protection of written works. 

A nonprofit may want to trademark both their name and logo, so that the name itself and the design are both separately reserved for the organization’s use only. If the nonprofit has a catchphrase or slogan, this would also be eligible for trademark.

Nonprofits could use a copyright for the following examples:

  • A curriculum which outlines the nonprofit’s unique approach to their mission
  • Educational materials produced by the nonprofit for the public
  • Other creative works by the nonprofit, like a magazine or video series. 

Should my nonprofit be trademarked or copyrighted?

We get it—nonprofits are stretched thin enough as they are, so why spend time and resources on a trademark or copyright? It’s not a requirement, after all. 

One crucial advantage to trademarking is to protect your nonprofit’s name and branding from being taken by another organization. Branding is often the last thing on nonprofit leaders’ minds, but it can make a huge difference when it comes to reputation and fundraising (our sister company, Allies 4 Good, has an excellent resource about naming your nonprofit here). 

For example, say you start a nonprofit in your community and call it Hartford’s Haven of Hope. If someone were to start another organization—even with an entirely separate mission—called Hartford Home of Hope, this could cause a level of confusion that has a real impact on your organization. Donors may accidentally write checks to Hartford Home of Hope instead of your organization, volunteers might show up at the wrong location, and the public’s perception of your mission could be hazy.

To take this example one step further, imagine if a director at Hartford Home of Hope were to be caught posting unsavory comments on social media or even committing a crime. Even if that person were disciplined appropriately, it’s possible that your organization’s reputation could be hurt as well due to the similarity of your names! So when they hear Hartford’s Haven of Hope, they’ll think, “Oh, is that the organization I saw in that horrible story on the news?” 

Reputation matters when it comes to fundraising. Protecting your nonprofit’s name prevents confusion and is good for the bottom line so you can focus on what really matters.

As for nonprofit copyrights, the most straightforward advantage is to protect your materials from being purposefully or unintentionally stolen. Nonprofits that are educational in nature, such as financial literacy groups, rehabilitation homes, or religious organizations with a focus on teaching are most likely to benefit from copyrights. 

Even if your organization wants its materials to be distributed to as many people as possible, your nonprofit should be able to be recognized as the one who made such an impact. Donors could be split between choosing between giving to your organization or another group doing the same work by duplicating your materials, even if this other group did not put in the hard work of creating them. 

Copyrighting your nonprofit’s work can also ensure that groups who you’ve permitted to use your work are up to your organization’s standards before using them. For example, if you’ve created an educational curriculum for students with disabilities, you can copyright the curriculum and put a process in place for organizations to be able to use it. Then, you can check to ensure organizations using your curriculum have safety standards in place first so you can ensure your programming is being used in the proper format for the students and their needs. 

Finally, why not make sure your nonprofit’s name, logo, slogans and written works are reserved for your own use? As the saying goes, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. You may find you go years without an issue, only to wish you’d trademarked your name when a blogger somewhere uses your name as their web domain. Now, you’re dealing with an obstacle to building your own nonprofit’s website, when you could have kindly asked them to change their domain due to trademark infringement. 

What can’t my nonprofit trademark or copyright?

While pursuing a trademark or copyright is often worthwhile, before hiring a professional or taking the time to do so yourself, it’s helpful to know why certain works likely won’t be trademarked or copyrighted. 

The material is too generic. Your nonprofit likely won’t be able to trademark a name that is too general to be reserved, such as the name “Indiana Food Pantry” or the slogan “We’re here to help.” This doesn’t mean you cannot name your organization something general or have a vague catchphrase, it just likely will be rejected for trademarking or copyright. 

The material has already been taken. This one is quite obvious. “Taken” can also mean the name that is remarkably similar (if someone wanted to copy the Apple logo but the bite was on the other side, and maybe the fruit had two leaves, its likeness would still be too similar). 

The material doesn’t meet the requirements held by the United States Patent and Trademark Office. There are a few other more minute factors that may lead to a trademark being rejected. You can view these additional grounds for refusal here.

What does the nonprofit trademarking or copyright process typically look like?

The first step is to search the databases of registered materials to make sure yours isn’t already taken or too similar to an existing trademark or copyright. Then, your attorney would send you a memo with any similar names, logos, etc. and provide advice about whether or not they believe yours would be protectable.

If you’re comfortable with moving forward from there based on their professional advice, they would then file with the appropriate government bodies: namely the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the U.S. Copyright Office. State registrations only apply on the state level only, and the federal registration allows you the legal right to use your trademark and bring a concern about it to court if necessary (learn more here about when it might be time for your nonprofit to sue). It also means you may use the federal trademark registration symbol, ®, to denote this. 

Once you’ve applied for your trademark or copyright, it may take a few weeks (or months, depending on how backed up the agency is) before you’ve heard a response. If your application is accepted, you’re successfully registered and can take action against anyone who infringes on your right to your mark. Often, the agency will reply to your application with questions or clarifications. This is a frequent occurrence within the process and is not indicative of whether your application will be approved or denied.  If your application is denied, it doesn’t mean your name must be changed. It simply means you cannot protect it in this way. 

The choice is yours whether or not you’d like to pursue protection for your nonprofit via a trademark or copyright. We think it’s an excellent way to keep your nonprofit’s branding and reputation safe while establishing some credibility. If you’d like to speak with one of our experienced nonprofit attorneys about our trademarking and copyright services, reach out to us, as we’d be happy to see how we can help.

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