Who owns the word ‘Adventist,’ or ‘Catholic’?

By Julia Duin Do religious groups have the right to sue you if you use their name, logo or so-called … Continued

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?

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  • amelia45

    This can go too far. When individuals who are members of a particular religion have a position in opposition to that of the religious hierarchy, how else are they going to be able to get the word out? Not being Adventist, I would assume that a designation “Adventists for Life” would not necessarily represent the position of the faith on the question, just the position of a group of Adventists who want to promote that message. Same with some designation of Catholics for …. Those words do not mean what the group is for has some official church sanction. It is just a group of folks all of whom happen to be Catholic who support whatever the group is for. Gee whiz. What a muffler.

  • markus80s

    The danger here is that if this type of decision is left to stand, then any religious group (or any company for that matter) can go after forums and blogs with their name in the title and have it taken down. This is taking things too far.

  • nicsamojluk1

    The problem I see with the church’s position is the apparent double standard. The Washington Adventist Hospital operates under the “Adventist” designation with impunity in spite of a history of being engaged in the killing of innocent unborn human beings; while a pro-life member of the Adventist Church was the target of the church’s displeasure while engaged in trying to save human lives.What the church seems to be saying with such an action is: If you profit from the killing of innocent unborn babies, the church will not bother you; but if you dare to save the lives of those babies, we will take legal action against you. This bothers me a great deal. In the past, I have sent financial contributions to the pro-life program of the General Conference of Seventh-day Adventist. Each time, my checks were returned with the following message: “The church doesn’t have a pro-life program.” The church will do anything to help you quit the smoking habit, because this may add four or five years to your life. But if you try to prolong the life of a baby by 80 or 90 years while using the Adventist name, you will be sued. Does this make logical sense?The former president of the church, Jan Paulsen, publicly declared some years ago that the SDA Church was pro-life. Is this claim credible given the evidence we have today? Some years ago, the church official paper reported that five of the Adventist hospitals were offering elective abortions to their patients. Is this the way to convince the world that the church is pro-life?The founders of the Adventist Church were definitely pro-life and described the practice of abortion as plain murder. What has taken place? Profit was behind the church’s decision to allow its “Castle Memorial Hospital” to embrace the abortion business back in 1970 in the State of Hawaii, according to George Gainer whose article was published by the “Spectrum” magazine. He also reported that the “Washington Post” run a story several decades ago stating that in seven years of operation the Washington Adventist Hospital had performed 1494 abortions for their patients.I could say much more, since my doctoral dissertation dealt with this issue.May the good Lord have mercy on the Adventist Church and on the innocent victims of this abortion genocide. I love my church for the good it has done in the area of health and education, but in the matter of abortion the church needs to repent and ask God for forgiveness. The church needs also to apologize to Mark Price, the person whose Adventist for Life web page was shut down and allow him to reinstate it in order that he can continue with his God-given altruistic mission.

  • wiki-truth

    Att: M I C H E L L E K I N P A and alikes;me once dated a nice-a nice-a [Married] italiano ‘LADY’ (not garbage) named, ironically is/was “Julie”. And me’s remember how she used to make me’s laugh when she mention somethin about the ‘Advantist”: She would say,they come to my house and “Take Advantages..” in an italian accent.Note: Julie was very religious, but her husband was not. he Found out and it cost our relationship. in a way thank “IT”!Note again: Atleast i [WE] helped her troubled teenage (only) Son become Well-off! PS: Time for YE or YO to take some Meds. Please, if your in G-Ds Country California ask a Doctor to Prescribe Ye Yo’s some THC, aye Babe!Huggs-n-Kiss’ms anyvays. Oye…!

  • mehrenst1

    This is what happens when you go down the path of removing the concept of “fair use” from Copyright Law. You end up with someone trying to push a totally ridiculous position. It seems very appropriate that this is being push be a religious group.Bill Maher was right, it is spelled “Religulous”.

  • DrS1

    It seems to me that the Trademark rules should apply to religous organizations just as much as any other organization. If they have gone to the effort to Trademark a name then it should be protected to the same extent as any other trademark. If they have not gone done their due diligence, then they have no protection.What is important here is that the law should be neutral as what the issues of the case involve. If the organization has done the paperwork to protect their identity and another group misuses it, then the organization should have due recourse.

  • mycroft42

    Sorry, but there’s nothing inherently “religulous” about this discussion. Try using Mickey Mouse ears to promote your own products sometime and see how “religulous” Disney can become.Also, there has been no removal of fair use from the trademark statutes. It seems the assumption is that Facebook’s action was mandated by trademark law. It was not – it was mandated by Facebook not wanting to take a position on trademark law. Depending on the nature of the church’s claim, their mark could be protected or it could not be. Facebook doesn’t want to be involved, and as a private entity that can post what it wants.

  • n01cat1

    The word adventist is defined as any religion which believes in the second coming of Christ. The word Catholic is defined as world wide. So, while I can understand the distress of the two denominations to which these words are commonly applied, in reality, the words do not specifically denote two specific denominations, i.e. the Seventh Day Adventists and the Catholic church.

  • oypay

    Note to N01CAT1: The word “catholic” (lower case)is defined as “universal”; the word “Catholic” (upper case) is defined as referring to the Roman Catholic Church. Although I’ve seen “Catholic” used to refer to denominations other than Roman Catholic, I think it is an attempt to “trick” the reader than any actual understanding of the definitions of words.

  • bloggersvilleusa

    I vaguely recall an episode of the Batman TV show in which the Penguin copyrighted the English alphabet. I don’t recall exactly how that turned out for the Penguin, although in Batman things usually didn’t work out too well for the bad guys.Now we’ve been subjected over the years to copyrights and trademarks that push the envelope ever closer to a real-life Penguinization of those laws by allowing for trademarking and copyrighting of common terms. Harley even tried to trademark the sound of the “vroom” of its motorcycles, for instance.I remember some years ago attending an annual crafts fair in the public square of a small town and viewing among many other things some chairs for sale. The craftsman had posted a notice stating that no one could photograph his chairs in an open public park because doing so would violate his so-called “copyright”. I truly wish that I had had a camera with me at the time.What annoys me is not so much the crackpots making such claims as it is the enablers who assist them by treating them as anything other than the goofs that they are. So now another common word of the English language is in the process of an illegal attempt at privatization for a special interest, the word “adventist”. And the “authorities” at Facebook are actually supporting this. Just another reason to dump Facebook altogether.Trademark and copyright reform is long overdue.

  • mikepost1

    It is my understanding that the official position of the SDA church is that in some cases, including the life of the mother or rape etc, abortion is permissible. This is a mainstream medical/humane position. Adventists maintain and operative several hospitals and have medical schools.

  • bobmoses

    “This is what happens when you go down the path of removing the concept of “fair use” from Copyright Law. You end up with someone trying to push a totally ridiculous position. It seems very appropriate that this is being push be a religious group.”Let me summarize: “I don’t like copyright law and I am a bigot.”

  • bobmoses

    “So much for the fiction that organized religion should be treated as some morally superior institution as opposed to the business entities they are. Money is their god.”Yawn. Another bigot who is too lazy to read before launching into an ignorant rant.If you actually read the article, you will note that money has nothing to do with this action.Now get back to hating people for their religious beliefs.

  • MarkDavidovich

    I am unaware of any law differentiating religious groups from others concerning their ability to register and defend trademarks. Phrases already in the publicdomain and in common use are hard to trademark whether or not they have religious significance. I do not see how “Jewish” or “Christian” could be trademarked. “Seventh Day Adventist” was not in common use prior to the church of that name’s using it. The name might be trademarked, and that tradmark may be enforced, just as any other trademark.

  • areyousaying

    How about Westboro Baptist Church?Do Baptists condone Fred Phelps hatred by allowing him to use their name?

  • joecct77

    Strangely enough, nobody has said anything about the one religion that not only issues a cease and desist order, but then carries it out.

  • Utahreb

    If these churches claim to have the same rights as businesses and corporations regarding their “logos” and “names”, then they should be taxed as businesses.

  • chrisinwien

    Canon Law requires that any entity calling itself Catholic must have the approval of a proper authority, usually a bishop. When Notre Dame Academy in Middleburg, VA, founded by the Sisters of Notre Dame, was taken over by a lay board and went in a secular direction (quickly), Bishop Paul S. Loverde revoked its Catholic status, removed the Blessed Sacrament from the campus chapel, and told the new board to change the school’s name to one which did not imply a Catholic character.Every bishop can do that to every “Catholic” group or entity. Bishop Olmsted recently did so to a formerly Catholic hospital in Phoenix. The second largest denomination in the US is former Catholics (30 million), according to the Pew Trust. Those who call themselves Catholics number 60 million, but those who practice their faith (and who are thus still “Catholic,” technically) are far fewer in number. Yet many of the most hateful dissenters call their organizations “Catholic” (for choice, etc.) because, without the hijacked brand, no one in the abortion-friendly media could pay any attention to them. (Imagine “Washington Post reporters for the Examiner!”)Canon law also tells us that anyone performing an abortion or facilitating one (i.e., adamant boyfriends) **automatically** incur excommunication **latae sentenciae.” So the group mentioned in the blog should properly be called, “Excommunicated Catholics For Abortion.”

  • solsticebelle

    “If these churches claim to have the same rights as businesses and corporations regarding their “logos” and “names”, then they should be taxed as businesses.Posted by: Utahreb | January 30, 2011 8:57 AM “Exactly.

  • wiki-truth


  • patmatthews

    There is the understanding of the specific and the general in Buddhism.In General Catholics or Christians are a group. Specifically, named churches have a right to protect their own name, just as any entity has that same right, copyright protection laws.In General declaring Christianity as Pro-Life would assume ALL Christians are against Abortions, which would be inaccurate, while declaring a specific church or religious organization is Pro-Life or pro-choice. The Catholic Church as headed by the Pope is against any form of Pro-Choice, so the entire catholic Church is against Pro-Choice, while individuals may chose otherwise in conflict with their churchs leadership.The Church may own the name, however, the Church does not have a patent on FAITH, a personal choice not belonging to any specific religion, but to the People.When you speak as if you are the organization, you must be a leader of the organization or else you may no longer be a member of that organization.Start your own religious organization instead of stealing from others.The Nichiren Buddhist organization I belong to does not discuss personal choices, but encourages people to reveal the Buddha inherent within their own life and be responsible for their own decisions, and not let someone decide for them.Live your own life, decide your own choices and live a life of no regrets.Patrick

  • mjcc1987

    “religion” is not about god, but about pushing product. brand names like Jesus, Mohammd, Buddha, Allah, Jehovah, are trademarks in a pitched battle for commercial dominance. Wait until these losers try and trademark parts of the bible, koran, or torah…. They’ve already been weaponized.

  • mycroft42

    It is highly unlikely that “name only” religious trademarks would be legally enforceable – i.e. “catholic,” or “baptist,” – although “catholic” or “baptist” coupled with a distinctive emblem almost certainly would be. There is a significant difference between a word and a logo, and the article does not make clear whether the “Adventists for Life” were co-opting the Adventist logo, or just the name. One of the requirements for a valid trademark is “distinctiveness.” A simple word in general use is not usually “distinctive.” If just the name here, I highly doubt there is an enforceable infringement – although Adventist could be an exception if trademarked by the organization at the time the word was created. In other words, if the word did not exist prior to the organizations usage of it, then it could indeed be “distinctive.”Also, the fact that lawyers write letters about things should not be confused with court action. A “cease and desist” letter has no operative legal effect in any prescriptive sense other than to provide notice of a possible infringement. However, trademark law generally requires active attempts to discourage use by others in order for valid marks to be protected. Even if a generic name is registered, an actual determination as to whether an infringement of a valid trademark occurred would have to be made by a court.

  • nicsamojluk1

    My response to the following post:”It is my understanding that the official position of the SDA church is that in some cases, including the life of the mother or rape etc, abortion is permissible. This is a mainstream medical/humane position. Adventists maintain and operative several hospitals and have medical schools. As far as the issue with “SDA” or “Adventist” trademarks, that is a much closer question. I believe it might turn on whether the average person would be confused if the name of the organization (Adventists for Life or SDA Kinship) is an officially sanctioned group or just a group of members who have a private organization. It’s a legal issue for courts and lawyers and judges etc to decide.”*********The Adventist “Guidelines on Abortion” not only allow for abortion when the life of the mother is in danger, but also for mental health reasons. This means that the woman faced with an unwanted pregnancy can say: “I am mentally depressed. This pregnancy drives me crazy and I can’t sleep at night. I am not financially nor emotionally ready to have a baby and I desperately need an abortion.” This is evidence that my church is on the side of abortion instead of life. It has compromised a moral principle held dear to the Adventist pioneers who condemned the practice of abortion on biblical principles in the strongest terms. A former leader of the church publicly announced back in 1970 that our church was leaning towards abortion because there were too many people and too much hunger in the world, and he said this in the richest country of the world. This reminds me of an Adventist named Desmond T. Doss who stuck to his respect for human life, refused to bear arms even for self protection, was ridiculed by his fellow soldiers, was threatened with a court martial, endured deprivation, and risked his life on many circumstances while the bullets were flying around him, and persisted in his mission of saving the lives of wounded soldiers and was finally granted the medal of honor for outstanding service to the country by President Truman. What a contrast we have been exhibiting today by permitting our Adventist hospitals to engage in the highly lucrative business of killing innocent babies. We call the procedure “therapeutic abortion.” Killing has never been a therapy and it will never be morally justified as a therapy. My church needs to repent of his great sin against the Creator of life.Yes, the trademark is a legal issue for the courts to decide but who has the deep pockets to go against the church? By the way, this has already been decided by one court, and the judge ruled against the church, but the church keeps taking legal action against individuals who dare to ignore its wishes knowing that most defendants do not have the financial means to defend themselves in court.

  • md2or

    personally, i am no pro-life, but the Adventist assertion of ownership of an name runs contrary to our country’s rights to free speech.

  • muawiyah

    There are two kinds of speech ~ commercial and political. Copyrights and trademarks/trade-dress issues generally fall under “commercial” rules ~ although there are exceptions.Terms like “Catholic”, “Democrat”, “Buddhist”, “king”, “queen”, and so on have been around since ancient times so, in general, they are not in and of themselves subject to copyright or trademark rules ~ but they can be.These laws can get complicated in their application, but the concepts are fairly simple so most folks will have a feeling they’re doing wrong if they misuse a trademark, or lift copyrighted material.All of my stuff, for example, is original. That’s not true with the Washington Post though, but we both get away with getting our stuff published ~ and neither of us makes much, if any, money with the written word anymore anyway!Now, back to “Catholics for Free Choice” I’d say that’s a title that falls in the COMMERCIAL SPEECH CATEGORY ~ essentially it’s little more than a title denoting advertising.Certainly no one would mistake them for the Roman Catholic Church, but when it comes to “commercial speech” the RC’s may well have a lock on the term “Catholic”.if any lawsuit prevails against the “CFFC crowd I bet it’s over commercial usage.Once we get the government out of the business of paying abortion bills (as we defund planned parenthood and other pro abortion and abortion providers) it’s possible they’ll all go straight leg commercial and it’ll be a slam dunk for the Pope to stick their head in the toilet.I wouldn’t expect any action before the end of March when Obama makes a deal regarding who he’s going to toss under the bus in exchange for a national debt limit increase.

  • journeyer58

    The very idea that any organization can and does ‘own’ a word or words associated with said organization is ludicrous. How are people supposed to communicate if, by chance an amalgamation of people inadvertently infringe on a copyrighted set of words? Are we to assume from now on, that someone owns a word? What is the meaning behind this sudden need to copyright a set of words? I am of the opinion that no one can copyright a set of words for their own benefit. Should this trend continue, we, the people will become limited in our ability to communicate and speak to others regarding our intentions and abilities. Action should be taken to deny any organization the right to own a word or words descriptive of a belief or intention. Do not let this happen, we are already limited in our speech by the government, do not let corporations deny us the right to portray ourselves as we see fit.

  • bertzel

    Nothing is for free. Even “free speech” is bought and paid for….

  • toc59

    Religious brands and logos? That certainly sounds more like something a corporation would be into than a supposed altruistic soul saving organization.So much for the fiction that organized religion should be treated as some morally superior institution as opposed to the business entities they are. Money is their god.Enough already of the lie that they are operating on some higher moral plane. Tax them like any other business enterprise.

  • MichelleKinPA

    wiki-truth, had your meds lately? I got about three lines down, and stopped. Too much nonsense.I agree with those posting here that if a denomination’s name can be trademarked, then it should be able to be taxed.If the color yellow and the motto, “livestrong” are linked together as a trademark, I don’t have a problem with it.I think the Adventists for Life have had free speech denied them. Get the ACLU in on this, you’ll have your webpage up in no time. Otherwise, what are they supposed to call themselves? The Denomination founded by William Miller in 1831 for Life?I say this as a matter of opinion. I believe in a woman’s right to choose.

  • Commenter11

    One of the most ironic things, to me, about the way this has been handled is how so many in the Adventist church are so concerned about the “church-state” union prophesied in the “third angel’s message” – that is, the Vatican co-opting the government to enforce Sunday worship (this will be, in the end times, the mark of the beast according to SDA doctrine). What this smacks of is hypocrisy in that the General Conference (GC) of the SDA church is conspiring together with the state to stamp out any voice that dare not tow the party line. This action by the GC is church-state union in action. It’s not a prophecy. It’s now.So, how far does this go? Should other churchs and organizations take up the same tack as the SDA church? Let’s see how our civil liberties fare under a world like that. Perhaps Obama should trademark the name “Obama” and the word “Obama administration” so that he can sue in Federal Court anyone who speaks up against him. Maybe the Vatican should trademark the word “Catholic” and “Church of Rome” and “Pope” and then sue the Adventist church for mentioning them in the Seventh Day Adventists Believe… book.

  • bocian

    Please, please, please look up how to refer to the “Seventh-day Adventist Church” and “Adventists” (never “SDAs” or “the SDA”) in the Associated Press style. It’s very hard to take journalists and editors seriously when they can’t be bothered to follow their own rules. As for the subject at hand, it’s a fine line between using the name “Adventist” to refer to a cultural/religious identity and to imply endorsement by the church organization. It’s easy to see this as a black and white issue if you’ve never had your group identity co-opted to seemingly endorse something you don’t. I’m guessing if the group was called “Adventist Nazis” or something similarly ludicrous and offensive, no one would have an issue with the church exercising its trademark. While you may agree with this particular group, from a logical and legal standpoint, their use of the name is no different. This isn’t about pro-life or pro-choice, pro-doctor of pro-back alley, this is about the Kantian categorical imperative inherent in our legal system.