“Social Enterprise”: A case study in trademark law


Social Enterprise UK are an umbrella group set up to promote businesses with a community purpose. They define social enterprise as:

A business driven by social and/or environmental purpose. They are trading organisations (their main income streams are revenues for goods and services provided, not grants or donations). Successful social enterprises generate surpluses or profits which are reinvested towards achieving their social mission. Their assets are often locked for community purpose.

The term ‘social enterprise’ is not only used by Social Enterprise UK. Lots of other bodies, including the UK government use it. It is well established in lots of publications and has been around for at least a couple of decades.

However the use of ‘social enterprise’ is now potentially coming under threat. A US company called Salesforce are attempting to trademark the phrase ‘social enterprise’ in the EU. If Salesforce are successful they would effectively own the phrase ‘social enterprise’ and could begin to challenge anyone using the phrase without their permission. While this is unlikely to effect already established organisations such as Social Enterprise UK it could impact on new organisations or projects. The reason that Salesforce are doing this appears to be because they sell software to ‘social enterprise’ organisations and want to have exclusive use of the term for marketing purposes.

Social Enterprise Trademark Campaign

Social Enterprise UK have called their trademark campaign 'Not In Our Name'

Social Enterprise UK have launched a campaign to try and stop this trademark application. They already have a high enough profile and so have been able to create some publicity around the case. This case highlights a wider issue for businesses and other organisations. Trademark rules effectively supersede company name rules and copyright rules. If your company name, organisation name or product name is not protected by a trademark then it is not really protected. Anyone can come along at any point and try to trademark the name you are using. Whatever the size of your business or organisation it is worth investing in trademark protection. Without it you are under constant threat of your name being taken away from you. This threat can come from competitors or, as in the case of Social Enterprise UK, someone you have a business relationship with. As Social Enterprise UK point out they are one of Salesforce’s UK customers.

This is a potential danger with trademarks. Generic or common terms cannot normally be trademarked. However putting in a trademark application for a generic term can earn you a lot of bad publicity and anger from other companies and people operating in your sector. So while trademarks are generally a very good thing you need to think a little about who you might upset before putting the application in.

Trademarking can be a complex area. There are 45 different trademark classes in the UK covering areas such as building, education and musical instruments. You can search through these classes yourself or, if you would like some professional help, we can produce a report on how trademarks can be applied to your business, including advice on what counts as generic terms,  for only £33.

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