Cooperatives operate in some of Canada’s most competitive markets, competing with big businesses that include banks, grocery stores, gas stations and even breweries. Being competitive in a crowded field requires standing out from your competition. To that end, cooperatives are becoming increasingly sophisticated in their marketing and branding.
Part of being a sophisticated marketer means knowing that intellectual property laws offer you benefits but also present risks. If you are in the marketing, legal, or compliance department of a cooperative, this post is intended to introduce you to how intellectual property laws affect your branding.
Regular Trademark and Copyright Laws Apply
Trademarks are used by brand owners to identify their goods and services (think “Coca-Cola” or the Nike swoosh). For cooperatives, common trademarks include “house brands”, logos, and slogans.
From the perspective of Canadian trademark law, cooperatives are like any other goods and services provider. Cooperatives can protect their trademarks through registration and proper use (and by picking a strong trademark to begin with). Similarly, cooperatives can put their reputation at risk by infringing on the trademark rights of others, misusing their own trademarks, relying on weak trademarks, or failing to do proper due diligence before selecting a new trademark.
Trademark law can be complicated, so an introduction to the basics would easily fill five articles. Fortunately, those five articles already exist in the form of our Trademarks 101 series:
- Start Smart by Developing a Strong Trademark
- Pre-screening and Searches – Ensuring Your Trademark is Available
- Five Reasons to Register Your Trademark
- Use it or Lose It – Eight Tips for Keeping Your Trademarks Strong
- Going Global – Protecting Your Trademark Abroad
In addition to trademark laws, branding is impacted by copyright law. Copyright protects artistic works, including pictures, literary works, and music. In the branding context, the valuable copyright-protected material that cooperatives use might include advertising copy, promotional images, and logos.
Cooperatives should be aware of copyright law whenever they are developing and deploying new promotional material. Key considerations are avoiding the misuse someone else’s copyright and ensuring that you have copyright assignment agreements in place with your creative professionals. For more information, you can read our article What Brand Owners Need to Know About Copyright.
Cooperatives Frequently License Trademarks
While trademark licensing is common, cooperatives tend to use trademark licensing in ways that are unique to the sector. Groups of cooperatives often co-brand, or otherwise share trademarks, with one entity owning the trademarks and licensing them to the other cooperatives. For example, many credit unions license the World Council of Credit Unions, Inc.’s Hands & Globe certification mark (below).
Click here to view image
Licensing adds another legal element to branding. In the case where your trademark is being licensed, you need to ensure that your licensee is identifying you as the owner and is following your quality standards. If you are licensing another organization’s trademark, you need to ensure you are complying with the license agreement.
Cooperatives Have Access to Specialized Domain Names
Domains are a third type of legal protection available for brands. While many Canadian cooperatives use the common “.ca” and “.com” website domains, there are also specialized domains available to cooperatives.
The domain “.coop” is open to most entities in the cooperative sector. What is unique about .coop is that it is notavailable to entities outside of the cooperative sector.
Credit unions in Canada may soon have access to the domain “.creditunion”. The United States-based Credit Union National Association (CUNA) has taken steps to be the registry operator for the .creditunion domain. CUNA has not stated whether or not Canadian credit unions will be eligible but has indicated that the domain will be exclusive to the credit union sector. At this time, .creditunion domains are not available to purchase.
Conclusions and Recommendations
Every cooperative should take its intellectual property seriously. To that end, we recommend the following:
- Put someone in charge. Whether it is your legal / compliance or marketing department, someone in your organization should be responsible for ensuring that you have protected your intellectual property.
- Ensure your trademarks are registered and properly used. You should conduct a trademark audit of your promotional materials at least annually.
- When developing new promotional material, do not forget the legal aspect. You may need to have your legal counsel prepare written agreements for your creative professionals, conduct the necessary trademark search, and register any new trademarks.
- If your trademarks are being used by a third party (even a related third party) there must be a written license agreement in place which incorporates appropriate monitoring and control.
- If you have not already done so, consider registering any .coop domains that correspond to your trademarks.