Honda Motor Co. is at the receiving end of a lawsuit filed by the Save the Earth Foundation, a tiny nonprofit group that apparently holds a trademark to the phrase “save the earth.” The suit, filed in the United States District Court for the Northern District of California, resulted from a Honda Civic commercial in which an actor wears a T-shirt that says “Save the Earth.”
Who knew that those three words were owned by someone you've never heard of? The nonprofit, founded in 1989 and based around Palm Springs, California, provides funding to academics working on environmental issues. As the group’s founder, Neal Pargman, explains, “In 1988, after 16 years of working with 'earth' art and the vital message of 'Save The Earth,' the funds to establish the environmental research foundation that I had always envisioned were finally available."
Twenty-one years later, in filing the lawsuit to protect his "vital message," Pargman said, "The Honda ad campaign confused people into thinking that we endorsed Honda or were affiliated with Honda. We aren't affiliated with them and don't endorse them."
According to its website, Save the Earth has donated “over $500,000” since its founding — roughly $23,000 annually on average. Its “sponsors” seem to include several entities that have licensing deals with the group, which may be the lawsuit’s ulterior motive. Indeed, early in 2009, Save the Earth signed an exclusive agreement with Synergy Licensing, “to represent the Save the Earth logo and trademarks across all product categories and retail sectors.”
Is this any way to run an environmental movement?
I’m of two minds about this whole affair. On the one hand, the ability for anyone to own the rights to those three words seems dispicable, a grave miscarriage of trademark applications — that is, the group should never have been granted ownership. It received the trademark as recently as 2001, according to news reports, meaning that it was granted well after the term was in common usage. A simple Google search of those three words (contained within quotes) yields a whopping 1,540,000 results, at least as of this writing.
On the other hand, I’ve never liked that phrase, which appears all too frequently in ads, press releases, marketing materials, and product labels. It’s not just an overstatement — no product, no matter how widely used, will ever “save the earth” — but it’s downright wrong: The earth isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. It will be around long after we pollute the rivers, level the forests, melt the icebergs, soil the air, and otherwise make the place uninhabitable. It’s us that needs saving. So, maybe this lawsuit will help tamp down that hyperbole.
Still, it’s of concern. If "Save the Earth” can be trademarked, what other common admonitions can be legally bound up and licensed only by permission of the owners: “Clean Your Plate™”? “Wash Your Hands™”? “Call Your Mother™”? "God save the Queen™"?
On Save the Earth’s website, Pargman encourages readers to “Please join me and others like yourself and spread the word ....... ‘Save The Earth.’”
Just don’t use those words.