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Trademarking charity: ALS Association wants to own 'Ice Bucket Challenge'

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No one could've predicted what a sensation the Ice Bucket Challenge would become. It's everywhere. It's unavoidable. And now that it's earned the ALS Association over $94 million in charity, the organization has filed for a trademark seeking ownership of the phrase "ice bucket challenge." The August 22nd filings also request a trademark covering "ALS ice bucket challenge," a slightly-more-specific description that's proven equally popular across Facebook, Instagram, YouTube, and other social media. The ALS Association wants complete control over "ice bucket challenge" whenever the three words are being used for charitable fundraising purposes.

The move is raising some eyebrows, but it's not hard to understand where the ALS Association is coming from. There's definitely now a very real link between the Ice Bucket Challenge and amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (or Lou Gehrig's disease). Clearly the organization doesn't want anyone hijacking the term for fraud or other less than admirable causes. But would a trademark really do much to thwart scammers looking to deceive people by riding on the back of this summer's feel-good campaign?

Filing for a trademark makes sense, even if many consider it distasteful

Attorney Erik Pelton, who spotted the filings, finds the whole idea of trademarking a viral movement to be offensive. "An effort to register the Ice Bucket Challenge strikes me as a bit akin to those who sought register 'Boston Strong' after the marathon bombings in 2013," he wrote in a blog post. "Even if it were permissible under the law to register the phrase (again that is not clear here), it is in poor taste." Pelton is concerned that the ALS Association, if granted both trademarks, could stop other charities from bringing attention to their own causes through the ice bucket challenge. But one do-good organization suing another to stop people from dousing themselves with ice water would be a really bad look, so it's hard to imagine that happening.

Of course, all of this assumes the organization will be successful in its quest, and that's by no means guaranteed. Tracing the lineage of "ice bucket challenge" isn't so easy; the ALS Association filings say the first official use came on August 4th. Former Boston College baseball player Peter Frates (who suffers from ALS) is widely credited as the man who "officially" kicked off the challenge back in late July. But apparently there was a golfer who did it before him, and even Matt Lauer took an ice water bath in mid-July — before it became forever tied to ALS. Pelton thinks the ALS Association will likely be denied the trademarks, and our own legal guru Matt Macari predicts they'll be "tough to get." It'll likely be a few months before we hear a decision one way or the other.