#icebucketchallenge: ALS group moves to trademark “ice bucket challenge” viral sensation
Unless you’ve been living in a sensory-deprivation chamber for the past few weeks, you’ve heard of the “ice bucket challenge” being shown off on all types of social media. People get buckets of ice water dumped on them in order to encourage donations to the ALS Association, the foundation that supports research and care for those living with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, a muscle disease that’s also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease.
It’s impossible to know exactly what makes something like the ice bucket challenge go viral. Whatever the case may be, the sensation been an incredible benefit for the ALS Association. Yesterday, the group said it has raised $94.3 million since July 29, compared to just $2.7 million during the same time period last year. That’s nearly 35 times as much money.
It’s great news for a worthy charity, but the cause has led to an unfortunate legal move. The ALS Association has filed an application with the US Patent and Trademark Office seeking to trademark the term “ICE BUCKET CHALLENGE” for use in charitable fundraising. If successful, that would allow the ALS Association to stop other charities from using the phrase for their own fundraising.
The application was filed on Friday and spotted yesterday by trademark lawyer Erik Pelton.
“An effort to register the ICE BUCKET CHALLENGE strikes me as a bit akin to those who sought to register BOSTON STRONG after the marathon bombings in 2013,” wrote Pelton. “Even if it were permissible under the law to register the phrase (again that is not clear here), it is in poor taste.”
“[ALS Association] had little to nothing to do with anything related to the challenge, other than getting a bunch of checks in the month of August,” wrote Mike Masnick at Techdirt. “To now claim a trademark over it seems… kind of disgusting.”
Pelton notes that the phrase may be generic in the first place. And since ALS didn’t invent the phrase nor this fundraising idea, its application might have legal problems as well as ethical ones.
The “ice bucket challenge” blew up in late July when Pete Frates, a former Boston College baseball player, convinced some prominent people, including pro athletes, to take the challenge. While Frates is often credited with “creating” the challenge, it was around well before that.
As it happens, Slate reporter Josh Levin did a fair bit of research about who invented the “ice bucket challenge,” publishing his story on August 22—the same day the ALS Association filed its trademark applications. Pro golfers started to shower themselves with ice water for various causes in June of this year. On July 14, a minor-league golfer managed to focus the attention on ALS. From there, Levin followed the challenge a few more steps to Frates.
But without much trouble, Levin was able to find examples of regular people doing the ice bucket challenge—whether for fundraising or for laughs—before high-profile athletes made it go viral. The earliest use of the #icebucketchallenge hashtag on Instagram for this type of water-dumpage was by a user named standupguy06, who posted a video of himself doing the challenge on May 29:
In any case, there’s a long history of humans challenging themselves with cold water endurance in various ways. “The ‘cold water challenge’ and the ’24-hour ice challenge,’ both of which traveled widely across social media earlier this year, were variants on the classic polar bear plunge,” writes Levin in his exhaustive look into the viral video.
Despite all of that history, the ALS trademark applications make the claim that the first use of “ICE BUCKET CHALLENGE” was on August 4.