What is a Collective Membership Mark?

collective membership mark

A collective membership mark differs greatly from a traditional trademark (or service mark).  Collective membership marks are much rarer than trademarks and most individuals, businesses, and non-profit organizations will never have to worry too much about them.  Having said that, they still serve a very important purpose in our society and receive the same protections from infringement and misappropriation as traditional trademarks.  Before continuing, I encourage you to review my What is a Trademark? article, which I think will help you better understand the information presented in this article.

What is the Difference Between a Trademark and a Collective Membership Mark?

The biggest difference between a trademark and a collective membership mark is the purpose each one serves.  The purpose of a trademark is to identify and distinguish products/services and to indicate the source of those products/services.  For example, Nike uses its iconic “swoosh” symbol on clothing and footwear to identify and distinguish its products from those offered by competing athletic apparel companies (such as Under Armour and Adidas).  Similarly, Taco Bell uses its famous TACO BELL name on signage, menus, and advertising materials to identify and distinguish its quick-service Mexican restaurants from other quick-service Mexican restaurants (such as Chipotle and Qdoba).

Without these trademarks, we wouldn’t be able to determine which sneakers we were buying and which restaurants we were ordering from.  Could you imagine walking down the soda aisle in your local supermarket and none of the bottles or cans have any names or logos printed on them?  You wouldn’t be able to distinguish between Pepsi, Coca-Cola, Dr. Pepper, Diet Coke, Diet Pepsi, Diet Dr. Pepper, and the many other dark colas in the marketplace.  There would be no way for you to select and purchase the particular beverage you feel like drinking unless you started taste-testing each one right there in the store.  That would be complete chaos!  We need those trademarks to make our everyday purchasing decisions.

On the other hand, the purpose of a collective membership mark is to indicate membership in a particular organization.  In other words, a collective membership mark is used by members of an organization to indicate that they are members of the organization.  Nothing more.  For example:

  • The members of a motorcycle club might wear leather vests with the name of the club stitched on them.
  • The members of a sorority may wear a pin comprising the sorority’s name and Greek letters.
  • The members of a professional or trade association might hang a wall plaque at their place of business displaying the name of the association.

In all three of these examples, the members are not using the mark to identify and distinguish products/services, but rather are using it solely to show they are members of a particular organization.  The vest, pin, and wall plaque are issued by the organization to its members, and the organization controls who gets to be a member and who doesn’t.

Can a Collective Membership Mark Also Be a Trademark?

Unlike a certification mark, a collective membership mark can also be a trademark.  This means that the identical name or logo that’s used by members of an organization to indicate their membership in the organization can also be used by the organization itself to provide products or services.  So, for instance, a member of a teachers union may carry a membership card issued by the union that prominently displays the union’s name and indicates that the person is a member of the union.  But, the union itself also very likely uses its name to promote the interests of teachers, to lobby on behalf of teachers, and to promote public awareness of issues related to education.  These are all services being rendered by the union under its name.  The union is using its name as a trademark to provide those services.

It’s important to note that while a collective membership mark can also be a trademark if it’s used by the organization itself to provide products/services, a collective membership mark may not also be used by the organization as a certification mark.

How Do I Protect a Collective Membership Mark?

You can federally register a collective membership mark with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) just like you can federally register a traditional trademark.  The USPTO provides an online application form specifically for collective membership marks that in many respects is essentially identical to the form for registering traditional trademarks.  Of course, there are many significant differences as well.  If you’re going to apply to register a collective membership mark without the assistance of a trademark attorney, I strongly urge you to carefully review Section 1304 of the Trademark Manual of Examining Procedure (TMEP) before embarking down that path alone.

What Questions Do You Have?

I’m experienced US trademark attorney Morris Turek and I would be glad to answer any questions you may have regarding collective membership marks and how they differ from traditional trademarks.  Please feel free to call me at (314) 749-4059, send me an email (morris@yourtrademarkattorney.com), or simply fill out the contact form located below.  I look forward to hearing from you soon.