Margaret Mead’s quote is trademarked

I like to start seminars and talks by quoting Margaret Mead: “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” Almost everyone in my audience recognizes the quotation, and many have been using it in their email signatures or posting it over their desks. I provoke them by claiming that the statement is incorrect on several levels. Yet we should admire the inspirational intention behind it. We need to go “beyond Margaret Mead” by asking when, how, and under what circumstances small groups can change the world, and when, why, and under what circumstances such change is good. Last year’s Summer Institute of Civic Studies had rich discussions on that topic, captured humorously in this graphic by Joshua Miller:

It has never been clear that Margaret Mead actually uttered the quote in question. But a friend alerts me to this page on the Institute for Intercultural Studies website.

What is the source of the “Never doubt…” quote?

Although the Institute has received many inquiries about this famous admonition by Margaret Mead, we have been unable to locate when and where it was first cited, becoming a motto for many organizations and movements. We believe it probably came into circulation through a newspaper report of something said spontaneously and informally. We know, however, that it was firmly rooted in her professional work and that it reflected a conviction that she expressed often, in different contexts and phrasings. …

The “Never doubt” challenge is sometimes quoted in a longer form, with the coda, “indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” We decided on the shortened form both for brevity and because the exaggeration in the coda may, in print, weaken the basic concept rather than reinforce it.

Can my organization use the “Never doubt …” quote?

… If you wish to use the quote for non-commercial and non-partisan purposes, including the trademark sign where noted above, please do so with no charge and our good wishes. Following the quotation and the name Margaret Mead, you may put “Used with permission.”

This quote is now trademarked, and the trademark is held by Sevanne Kassarjian, New York. …

It seems to me that the motivation to trademark the phrase is benign: the Institute for Intercultural Studies is not charging anything and mainly wants to prevent partisan or commercial uses.

I don’t know much about intellectual property but find it surprising that one can trademark a quotation that a Google search finds 809,000 times (almost never with an ® after it) and that has appeared in published texts for decades. If I ever say something pithy and worthwhile, I won’t expect to be able to prevent partisan or commercial readers from quoting it–nor are partisan and commercial uses necessarily contrary to the spirit of the Mead quote. (Couldn’t a movement within a political party be a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens? How about a social enterprise?)

For now, I think I will continue to cite the following as my source for Mead’s remark: Nancy C. Lutkehaus, Margaret Mead: The Making of an American Icon (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2008), p. 261.

About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.
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  • The IIS has no trademark claim, though Mead’s heirs or those with a claim to the IIS’s copyrights might have a claim. Let’s start with the TM issue.

    One trademarks a brand name or short phrase or symbol/logo associated with a brand. This protects the brand, but it also protects the public, who would rightfully be miffed if they bought a car with a Mercedes logo on the hood and it turned out to be a Hyundai. (Hyundai makes fine cars, btw, just NOT Benzes.)

    A trademark protects a brand identifier that’s clearly associated with a brand in the relevant market. That curvy soda bottle is a world-famous brand identifier for Coke, so Pepsi and Big K can’t use the same curvy bottle. I could probably release a perfume with a similarly curvy bottle because there’s no clear overlap in markets. I could definitely use it for motor oil. A brand need not be world-famous, but the association between the words/symbols/logo and the product/service needs to be well-established.

    I’m not a lawyer, but I reeeeally doubt this rises to the level of brand association required for the trademark to be substantive grounds to sue. (You CAN sue for really ungrounded reasons, but I don’t think this is a winning argument for IIS.) This quote is EVERYWHERE. I’ve seen it hundreds of times, and not once until today had I associated it with IIS. That’s the opposite of the kind of close identification required for a trademark.

    Further, you cannot give blanket permission to use a trademark–even under certain conditions–because that would unduly dilute the brand. Nike can hire all the subcontractors it wants to make its sneakers, but they have to (and do) make sure the shoes meet the standards associated with their brand. By giving blanket permission to use a trademarked symbol of any kind, the IIS would utterly destroy any future claims to such a symbol as uniquely theirs to protect. If Nike lets just a few companies make counterfeit shoes and makes no effort to stop them, the brand Nike loses its trademark (in the eyes of the law) b/c it stops standing as a guarantee of any sort.

    Finally, the Institute is now closed as of December 2009. If Coke folds up shop tomorrow, any and all uses of their formerly trademarked brands and brand identifiers are fair game.

    The IIS may have been confusing trademark with copyright, and the copyright issues are not so clear. Copyright applies automatically to creative expression fixed in a tangible medium. Even the full quote, however (let alone the first sentence alone) may not be long enough to qualify for copyright protection, but it might be. More puzzling, however, is the source of the quote. To sue successfully, one needs to prove the authorship of the copyrighted work and a clear chain of title from that author to the plaintiff. If Alice wrote it, sold the copyright to Bob, and Bob sold the copyright to Carol, then to win in court, Carol needs to establish each step. In this case, the group seems to say that they don’t know where the quote came from or whether it was Mead’s in the first place. That’s hardly a sound basis for a lawsuit–but the uncertainty would also not be a great basis for starting up a national chain of stores selling T-shirts and bumper stickers with this slogan.

    In any case, the group’s legal grounds for and organizational capacity and willingness to sue anybody over using this quote–for purposes partisan, commercial, or otherwise–is quite thin, to say the least.

    • Peter Levine

      Thanks to both of you for really interesting information. I learned a lot.

    • Margaret

      Just to clarify, it’s not the group (IIS) that holds the trademark, but rather Mead’s granddaughter, Sevanne Kassarjian who does.

      • PeterLevine

        Can she demonstrate that Margaret Mead said it? That would be helpful because Lutkehaus says the quote is not attested in Mead’s work.

  • Anonymous

    In so far as it is an organization that supports Mead’s work, it seems relatively fair; but I don’t think it’s all that possible, at least for it to hold up in court.  My take:

  • robeauch

    Can’t believe I’m going to comment on a five-year-old post, but this page comes up near the top of the search rankings for Mead’s quote. So maybe an update will be of interest to future quote-googlers:

    The IIS disbanded in 2009, although Kassarjian (Mead’s granddaughter) is keeping its website up as a public resource, which seems nice of her. She no longer owns the trademark to the quote, though — apparently it’s been transferred to The Mead Trust: