Open Source Charity Icons

Back in August I wrote about something I termed ‘open source cause-related marketing.’ In it I described how “in effect General Mills had opened up the ‘source code’ to non-competing brands” to its well-executed Boxtops for Education campaign.

With Breast Cancer Awareness Month in full flower in the United States, it’s apparent that there’s a second kind of open source cause marketing going on… ‘open-source charity icons.’

I’ve written skeptically about charities using colored ribbons; some colors of ribbon are somehow meant to represent five or more different causes. But the ne plus ultra of colored ribbons in the U.S. is the pink ribbon, which signifies breast cancer awareness.

That kind of brand awareness is enormously valuable. And yet a cursory glance at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office suggests that no one has registered pink ribbons. Oh, Susan G. Komen has trademarked the terms ‘pink ribbon regatta,’ ‘pink ribbon golf tourney,’ and ‘pink ribbon celebration.’ And the National Breast Cancer Foundation trademarked ‘pink ribbon challenge.'

But pink ribbons by themselves do not appear to be trademarked. (To be fair, at this point the pink ribbon probably couldn’t be trademarked). As a result, pink ribbons are an ‘open-source charity icon.' Any of the breast cancer charities can use pink ribbons anyway they want. So can for-profit entities.

Of course this leads to abuses like this one from sales flyer for Carpet One. I’ve only shown one of the eight pages, but suffice it to say that Carpet One uses the pink ribbon like a graphical bug on every single page. Sometimes upwards of 10 times a page. According to their website Carpet One will donate 25% for the sales of "specially-designed pink ribbon welcome mats" in October, November, December to the Breast Cancer Research Foundation. But you'd never know that looking at this flyer.

But despite the potential for abuse, because no one owns the pink ribbon it’s more valuable. How's that for a paradox?

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