relinquishes Trademark application for “Social Enterprise”; What you Can Do to Protect a Phrase that Defines a Movement.

Language matters.  Language is how we communicate, frame problems and seek their solutions, and otherwise interact as social, complex human beings.  Words can affect how a person feels.  Ask anyone in the marketing business whether word choice is crucial; they know that words develop identity and create associations, and chosen carefully, words establish brand loyalty.  Because I spend so much time choosing my words as an attorney, I’d like to think that the properly chosen words fortify arguments and persuade listeners to action.  So for those of you who—like me—have landed upon “social enterprise” to describe the movement of using business as a tool to tackle the world’s most pressing problems listen up: (and other businesses) threatened to change that meaning of the term.  Luckily, the immediate threat has passed, but if you care about preserving the term (whether you are associated with a nonprofit, for-profit, or are a casual observer) please read on and find out how you can help.

I’ve known that “social enterprise” and “social entrepreneurship” do not have a uniform meaning.  It’s been highly debated within the movement over the last five or so years (and probably longer) about whether the term “social enterprise” properly defines the movement.  Two very interesting articles, and perhaps the more interesting comments that follow, provide insight into the debate: Social Entrepreneurship: The Case for Definition and Social or Cultural Entrepreneurship: An Argument for a New Distinction.

From what I know and have seen in the marketplace, companies will typically call themselves a “social enterprise” if they aim to further a triple bottom line, endeavor to be “a responsible business”, or label themselves “socially conscious companies.” Apex Law uses the term to describe all of the above.  Internal debates within the movement aside, I thought that “social enterprise” has been externally accepted by the general public to describe the movement of using business as a tool to tackle the world’s most pressing problems—especially after Professor Yunus’ well known book “Building a Social Business” brought the idea of  a “social enterprise” to the world.  I see the movement gaining futher cohesion and increased traction under the phrasing.   Apparently, however, my monolithic understanding of the term “social enterprise” and its general acceptance by the public is simply not true. has been using the term “Social Enterprise” to describe “how social and mobile cloud technologies are empowering companies to connect with customers, partners, and employees in entirely new ways.”  This article at the Stanford Social Innovation Review provides more on’s activities and—gasp—the company’s attempt to register a trademark with the USPTO claiming sole use of the term to describe and identify products.

Needless to say, the term “social enterprise” should NOT be used to describe a company committed and fully engaged in a social media strategy to reach its customers.  But as I mentioned, nearly commandeered the term for just that purpose by filing a trademark application with the USPTO claiming title to use the phrase with respect to identifying its products. With its market share and advertising muscle, the general public would quickly come to associate “social enterprise” as a business that effectively tweets or uses a suite of products and services.  Fortunately, the social entrepreneurship community reached out to the executives at and dissuaded the company from using that term.  Global movements, including this one, acting to preserve the meaning of “social enterprise” sprang up to preserve the term’s meaning.  The apparent tipping point was a letter, which included Professor Muhammad Yunus’ signature, pleading with executives at to withdraw their application.

So, for now anyway, the recognizable and powerful term “social enterprise” is protected.  To all who continue to seek ways to use their business to solve social problems and otherwise make the world a better place—you “social enterprises and social entrepreneurs”—keep up the good work!  And a special thank you to those who dissuaded to forego it’s trademark application.   Thanks to you, I can communicate with social entrepreneurs as a class and a movement without a dilution and confusion of the term.  Let’s continue to guide the public toward a monolithic understanding of “social enterprise.”

If you would like to help to preserve the term “social enterprise” please visit the Social Enterprise Alliance and find out how!


The article provided above is for general information purposes only and should not be relied on as specific legal advice. This article does not form an attorney-client relationship. If you have any questions about this article, please feel free to contact Peter J. Smith at

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