The trademark registration for the blue-striped sari worn by Mother Teresa of Calcutta became official in India last year, but it only recently came to light since the trademark owners — the Missionaries of Charity — the order of nuns she founded, was not interested in publicity.
Applications for use of the blue stripes on stationery, textiles, and for social and charitable services were first filed in December 2013 and the trademark was granted by India’s Trade Marks Registry on September 4, 2016 — the same day Mother Teresa was canonized by Pope Francis.
Biswajit Sarkar, an attorney for the Missionaries of Charity, told The Times of India that the “charity wasn’t too eager to highlight the fact as it isn’t too keen on punishing people.” Sarkar went on to say that the organization would take “severe” legal action against any unauthorized use of the design, including charitable organizations, pointing out that no exceptions will be made for religious orders and non-profits. “. . . whether it is for commercial gain or not is not the issue,” Sarkar said. “We are thinking about our identity. If the blue pattern, which is unique in the world, is diluted or used by the public, then one fine morning the organisation will lose their identity.” (To learn more about the significance of the blue-striped sari, visit the Mother Teresa of Calcutta Center website.)
Sarkar noted that many schools named after Mother Teresa wear the sari and cited other examples of trademark infringement, including those that appear on mementos and memorabilia, along with the covers of religious books. He specifically mentioned that the organization plans to take action to stop the sale of a children’s version of the sari on Amazon and other online retailers.
In the nonprofit world, trademarks are a representation of an organization’s reputation, credibility, and goodwill. As Elizabeth Kleinberg, chair of the International Trademark Association’s (INTA) Nonprofit Organizations Committee states on the INTA website: “Nonprofit organizations face many of the same trademark issues as for-profit brand owners, but with some significant twists. They must protect their brands with more limited resources. They also may face infringement by their own supporters who, although with good intentions, could undermine the organization’s trademark rights.”
What other unique trademark challenges do nonprofits face?