Who Owns The Women's March Brand? A Trademark Dispute Reveals An Existential Crisis

As liberal organisers prep for the midterm elections coming this fall, an existential battle is raging among Women’s March activists about who literally gets to own the movement.
The latest disagreement is over the trademark: On one side is Women’s March, Inc. the high-profile national organisation seeking to trademark “Women’s March,” a brand they feel they own and need to control; on the other is a group of 14 other organisations that sprung out of the national day of protest in 2017 (some of which use a variation of "Women's March" in their names; some of which use "March On" or are more local in nature), that say that the movement is large and diffuse, and that no single organisation can control it.
“In principle, the movement belongs to no one. There were hundreds if not thousands of women who were intrinsic parts of making this happen,” says Vanessa Wruble, the executive director of March On, who was a chief architect on the original Women’s March on Washington team and worked alongside the four co-chairs (Linda Sarsour, Tamika Mallory, Carmen Perez and Bob Bland) among others, before leaving the organisation in early 2017. “I worked on it from the moment it was a thing, and I’m still working on it. I believe it belongs to everyone.”
The debate over who owns the Women’s March and what it stands for has been an ongoing question since the beginning in November 2016. But it’s flaring up again because in March, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office announced that Women’s March, Inc. would soon be granted the trademark “Women’s March.” This trademark means the organisation would control all uses of the “Women’s March” mark and, as a result, the Women’s March brand. Crucially, it means controlling the funds raised off of Women’s March-branded T-shirts, hoodies, baby onesies, and other merch. But it could also mean controlling the messaging and overarching goals of “the movement” and who gets to be a part of it. As is typical in the trademarking process, any organization seeking to dispute a trademark after a public notice has 30 days to do so.
After weeks of heated discussions about what to do, 14 separate organisations, including March On as well as independent entities from California, Chicago, New York and Boston, all filed extensions in order to express dissent between April 11th and April 13th. In interviews with Refinery29, organisers from the groups say they filed extensions both to give themselves more time to think about how to proceed, and to signal to Women’s March, Inc. that they disagree. They hoped that by doing so, Women’s March, Inc. might simply drop the matter, removing the need for a full challenge.

If we don’t protect the trademark, it could be co-opted and employed by people antithetical to our mission.

Bob Bland, co-president Women's March, Inc.
In the meantime, another group, Women’s March Los Angeles, has already moved forward with an official letter of protest to challenge the mark along with an application for its own trademark for “Women’s March Los Angeles.”
“I’ve built this brand along with them. They aren’t the only group who should own it,” explains Emiliana Guereca, the co-executive director of Women’s March Los Angeles and newly elected President of Women’s March California. Guereca says the trademark was initiated without discussion, and so she felt she had to oppose it just to “get a seat at the table.”
Women’s March, Inc., which already owns the mark in Canada, insists that filing for the mark is a “matter of course” for any organisation. “We have to be able to control it or else anyone could use it. We need to be able to protect the brand, which represents the Unity Principles and is rooted in Kingian Nonviolence,” says Bob Bland, co-president of Women’s March, Inc., adding that Time’s Up and Black Lives Matter have also registered trademarks. Already, she adds, “there are thousands of sites using the name to raise money. We have no idea where that money is going. If we don’t protect the trademark, it could be co-opted and employed by people antithetical to our mission.”
Refinery29 spoke with nine of the 14 group leaders who filed in opposition. (Five didn't return calls for comment by press time.) They cited a lack of transparency, fears that Women’s March, Inc. might charge licensing fees or dues to use the name, and stories of local organisations already being sent letters asking them to stop using the phrase and branding associated with “Women’s March," as reasons to question the goals of the trademark.
“I get why they want it on some level, but why was this not discussed with the other leaders in this movement?,” Guereca says. “If you tell me we’re trademarking it, and these are going to be the rules for the trademark, and we can all agree, we could have all signed off on it. But that’s not a conversation we’re having.”
In one instance that was reported in the New York Times in January, a group called Mobile Marchers in Mobile, Alabama, was asked not to use Women’s March branding after trying to list their anniversary event on the Women’s March website. In another report by Rolling Stone, the original organisers of Women’s Marches in Canada were unceremoniously kicked out of their roles, locked out of social media accounts and replaced by staffers chosen by Women’s March, Inc. Organisers interviewed by Refinery29 say they fear this is an example of what might happen in the U.S. as well, if the mark is granted.
Bland insists that the fee rumors are false, and they have no plans to exclude anyone. “We have said this repeatedly: We don’t own the movement. We never will. We haven’t stopped anyone from using the name Women’s March, unless it’s someone using it for personal profit,” she says. “We have many stakeholders who have an understandably deep commitment to the brand and feel ownership. We are absolutely here and available to speak to anyone with concerns and our goal, as always, is to make sure everyone who wants to be a part of this movement feels included.”
But organisers dispute that there are open lines of communication. “I actually would love to talk to any of the people at [Women’s March Inc.],” says Eve Hurwitz, director of March On Maryland. “I tried for months to reach out to Women’s March and I never heard from anybody."
"They have rarely engaged in conversations with sister march organisers and when they have it is defensive and unkind," says Jessica Rodgers, a co-organiser for March On Colorado, which organised Denver Women's March.
On top of that, Guereca argues it's not right to trademark a phrase as general as “women’s march,” which has been used repeatedly by women around the world. “I’ve marched in Argentina and in Mexico at ‘women’s marches.’ There has always been a women’s march somewhere. Did they call and get permission from The Zapatistas? The people behind the Women’s March on Versailles?,” Guereca says.

They go around saying they’re a national organization. But that’s not what’s happening. There are a lot of leaders out here... And we have no say.

Emiliana Guereca, co-executive director of Women's March Los Angeles
While the organisers admit that the Women's March On Washington was what one could call the headline event, they point out that women from other cities independently organised their own sister marches across the country that day. The result was an international day of protest that was largely a spontaneous response to a moment in time.
“Women’s March Chicago would support Women’s March Inc.’s application to trademark a unique name which reflects their historic work organising the Women’s March on Washington in 2017. We would similarly support such an application by any other organising body which engaged in work in their community,” reads a statement emailed to Refinery29 on behalf of Women’s March Chicago’s board of directors. “However, Women’s March Chicago would prefer that no organising body seek a trademark which arguably covers the labours of other organisers in the Women’s Movement. A trademark on the phrase 'Women’s March' does exactly that.”
Many of the groups that have opposed the trademark have in fact already re-branded or never used the exact phrase “women’s march” in their name or branding to begin with. They are disputing the trademark on principle.
"We hosted and funded both the 2017 and 2018 Women's March in New York," says Katherine Siemionko, executive director of Women's Alliance (formerly known as Women's March Alliance) in New York City. "Both times they have removed us from the national website. They've bashed us on social media. They're not supportive of what we're doing."
Siemionko says she's reached out repeatedly to Women's March, Inc. to try to work together. She says her organisation has already re-branded to reflect the lack of association between the two groups, but she says she remains concerned about the trademark. "The march is the thing people know. If I want to have another march, then it will be confusing if I can't use the name Women's March."
“We feel pretty strongly that this is a mistake. There’s not a whole lot that would affect my specific organisation but we feel this doesn’t serve the broader movement,” says Karen Cosmas, executive director for March Forward Massachusetts in Boston. "To be clear, I think that a look and feel and a logo is associated with the D.C. Women’s March. We don’t use that look and feel. But to purport that a group of activists who wants to host a women’s march have to be approved by this one group in New York City — it defies the grassroots nature of what we’re all trying to do.”
Alexandra Wojcik, a spokesperson for March On Hudson Valley, echoes the sentiment. “We believe that the term ‘women's march’ should describe the women's march movement, and thus the term should not be owned by any one organisation, be they at the forefront of the movement or not,” Wojcik said over email. “To trademark ‘women's march’ implies hierarchy — it implies that a specific group or organisation not only owns the movement, but is also making decisions about who can and cannot affiliate with the movement.”
Other local organisers, some of whom declined to speak on this publicly, expressed that fighting the trademark is actually a way to protect a brand they feel has been sullied by poor leadership. This is especially true in light of the Louis Farrakhan controversy earlier this year, which depending on who you ask was either bad public relations or a sign of actual anti-Semitic leanings of certain leaders. (This is among the main reasons Siemionko re-branded her group.)
“I think its been hurtful to the movement at large, and we have done our best to show our community that we stand strong in support of all communities. It’s been tough honestly,” says Dawn Addis, a Women’s March organiser in San Luis Obispo, California. “The power of Women’s March is in the 5 million marchers that marched worldwide. That’s part of why we’re pressing back against the trademark. This is a grassroots movement. It’s not about the four people who organised D.C.”
"This schism wasn't born in a vacuum, it is a direct result of these women, who are poor leaders, to communicate," Rogers says. "I don't feel that they’ve used their platform as a tool for change, but as a tool for their resumes."
“They go around saying they’re a national organisation. They are the leaders, and we follow,” Guereca says. “But that’s not what’s happening. They’re not running it like a real organisation. They spent a year and a half building their personal brands instead of building this movement. That’s understandable. But I think we all need to be honest about why we’re doing this.”

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