By Julia Duin
Do religious groups have the right to sue you if you use their name, logo or so-called branding color?
Maybe so. On Monday, this blog ran a report that mentioned an Adventists for Life Facebook page for Seventh-day Adventists who oppose abortion.
The SDA headquarters, based in Silver Spring, Md., reacted quickly, asking Facebook to remove the offending page. I contacted Facebook on Wednesday to ask why no one checked with the folks behind the page before killing it. I received a copy of their policy that says once someone lodges a plausible claim of trademark infringement, Facebook removes or disables access, no questions asked.
Mark Price, a Canadian SDA’er who was in charge of the page, alerted the 600 members of the group that he’d been silenced. “The Adventists For Life group is not an organization but an informal gathering of Seventh Day Adventists who are pro-life,” he wrote me. “I am very concerned, as you are, about this kind of power that the Adventist leadership have to shut people up.”
I called SDA spokesman Garrett Caldwell to see what was up. He told me his organization had complained about trademark infringement; that is, the unauthorized use of the SDA brand.
“We are working hard to try to protect the name and organization associated with the name,” he said. “Both ‘Adventist’ and ‘SDA’ are trademarked and registered names. We want to make sure the use of the name is connected with our organization.”
If the originator of the page called SDA headquarters and asked permission to use the SDA name, “We’d say absolutely [yes],” he added.
Hmmmmm. I was sent a copy of a terse cease-and-desist letter written by Andrea Saunders, associate general counsel for the SDA, and there was no mention whatsoever of asking permission. The letter not only wanted the Facebook page renamed, it also wanted its originators to deregister the domain name for www.adventistsforlife.org, which the originators owned but were not using.
Now the page has existed on Facebook for some time. Only now did the SDA go after it. This whole situation brings up an interesting conundrum. What if other religious groups did the same thing? In this age of marketing, brand names and search engine optimization, are words such as “Jewish” or “Mormon” or “Catholic” now trademarks?
If so, someone had better call the US Conference of Catholic Bishops. They’ve been after the group Catholics for a Free Choice for more than a decade, informing anyone who will listen that CFFC “is an arm of the abortion lobby” and “is not a Catholic organization, does not speak for the Catholic Church, and in fact promotes positions contrary to the teaching of the Church as articulated by the Holy See.”
Or how about many Jewish groups, which have resented the group Jews for Jesus ever since its 1973 founding partly because of its name?
Or the word “Mormon”? Surely the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints hasn’t appreciated all the ways that word has been used.
Trademarking an ultra-common name, adjective or phrase may sound ridiculous, but look how the Susan G. Komen Foundation has threatened to sue more than numerous charities over the words “for a cure.” That is, if you’re a group of figure skaters that sponsors an event called “Skate for a Cure” to help fight cancer, you’ll hear from the Komen lawyers. They’ll also warn you against using the color pink, Komen’s trademark hue.
The Lance Armstrong Foundation has taken a similar position with the color yellow, the Wall Street Journal reports.
It’s only a matter of time before the world’s religions pick up on this trend. The possibilities are endless. An enterprising Islamic group can claim it has exclusive rights to the world ‘Muslim’ and the color green. Hindus can certainly lay claim to the color saffron.
So the Adventists may be ahead of the times, not behind. They have been defending their name for some time, most notably in 1987, when they sued SDA Kinship, a group of gay Adventists, also charging trademark infringement. US District Judge Mariana Pfaeizer ruled against the church in 1991, saying the group’s title did not infringe on the denomination’s use of the name.
The SDA did not appeal that ruling, but it’s been fighting the unauthorized use of its name ever since.
Should religious denominations be able to sue groups that use their name or logo without permission?