Special correspondent to Oncology Times, Eric Rosenthal, wrote an article titled, “Komen ‘For the Cure’ Trademark Protection Ignites Ire of Some Breast Cancer Bloggers,” that discussed some of the recent concerns, particularly in the blogosphere, about Komen For the Cure’s trademark issues and marketing activities.
The article gives brief mention to other issues about the organization, namely the Komen-KFC partnership and the pink “buckets for the cure” campaign, but the article focuses specifically on two blogs written in early December about Komen’s actions to secure its trademarks. Laura Bassett’s “Susan G. Komen Foundation Elbows Out Charities Over Use Of The Word ‘Cure’” in The Huffington Post and Alicia Staley’s “Lawsuits for the Cure” on WEGO Health, along with the hundreds of comments they elicited from readers, question Komen’s efforts to police its trademarks (i.e., the phrase “for the cure”). In the article, Rosenthal remarks that following the Bassett/Staley postings, he spoke with Komen officials and Ms. Staley about the issue. He did not mention why he did not speak with the other blogger, Ms. Bassett, or with any of the others who have voiced concerns about Komen’s actions.
I was hoping for a reasoned analysis of the trademark issue, perhaps even a discussion of what is at stake when a charity organization grows large enough to have the capacity to function almost as a corporate entity itself. Rosenthal’s opening words set the stage for a different conversation altogether:
“It isn’t always easy being perceived as the 800-pound gorilla or Goliath in the world of breast cancer advocacy, especially when that position can make for a very large and vulnerable target for criticism from the blogging Davids out there with virtual slingshots.”
Since the gorilla symbolism does not work with the slingshot imagery, Rosenthal’s central theme for the article must be the biblical story of David and Goliath in which Komen for the Cure is Goliath and, according to Rosenthal, “a very large and vulnerable target.” The biblical Goliath was indeed very large, a 9-foot giant according to The Old Testament. But, was Goliath vulnerable? I’ll turn to The Living Bible (1971) that my great grandmother gave to me.
The passage of the Bible that tells the story of David and Goliath is 1 Samuel 17. It begins with an ongoing feud between the Philistines and the Israelites. On this particular occasion, the two groups were positioned in the mountains on the opposite sides of a valley waiting for a battle.
Every day, twice per day, for forty days, a giant man called Goliath came out of the Philistine ranks dressed in bronze armor and carrying a shield and a javelin tipped with a 25-pound spearhead. Goliath would strut before the armies of Israel, urging them to choose a representative to engage in a one-on-one death match. He’d shout, “If your man is able to kill me, then we [Philistines] will be your slaves. But if I kill him, then you [Israelites] must be our Slaves!”
Clearly, Goliath was sure he would win. He had the armor, the stature, the weaponry, the confidence, and the hordes of supporters to cheer him on. When he shouted insults at the Israeli armies on the fortieth day, the soldiers started to run away in fear thinking that Goliath was invincible.
When a young shepherd named David heard the ruckus, he naively volunteered to fight the giant. David was not a trained soldier and was only sent to the battle lines to bring back news about his brothers. Yet he reasoned that if he, as a shepherd, could go after a lion or a bear with a club and take one of his lambs out of its mouth without being harmed, he could surely beat Goliath. After David persuaded the others to let him confront the giant, he put on some armor. It was too heavy for him, so he took it off and faced the giant in only a tunic, carrying his shepherd’s staff, a slingshot, and a pouch with five smooth stones.
When Goliath approached with his spear and javelin, David ran to meet him. Goliath shouted insults as usual, but David declared that the giant and his weapons were no match for the higher power that would ultimately prevail. As Goliath moved in, David took a stone from his pouch, aimed it at a hole in Goliath’s armor, and sunk the stone deep into Goliath’s forehead. The giant was dead. When the Philistines saw this, they turned and ran, and the Israeli armies won the battle.
Was Goliath vulnerable? Perhaps. His insolence, pompousness, carelessness, lack of vision, and disrespect for his opponents led to his downfall. Is this what Rosenthal meant in his opening statement with regard to Susan G. Komen for the Cure? Later in the article, Rosenthal asks:
“Was Komen acting as a big bully by opposing use of “for the cure” by other organizations or was it protecting its trademarks as required by regulations put forth by the federal government?”
Rosenthal never answers the question. Instead, using a “he-said/she-said” type of cadence, he supplies a set of statements from an interview with Alicia Staley who had written Lawsuits for the Cure, a response to Staley’s blog from Komen spokesperson Andrea Rader, and an interview with Komen’s general counsel, Jonathan Blum. Rosenthal gives 341 words to Staley, 366 words to Rader (drawn from her comment on Staley’s blog), and 798 words to Blum. If this were a balance sheet, we’d see a clear leaning to Komen’s position, which, according to counsel Blum is:
“If a pharmaceutical company was trying to sell a cold formula using ‘medicine for the cure’ to sell a product then we wouldn’t bother with them because it’s clearly not in the realm Komen would care about… However, the situation changes when you start to talk about charitable fundraising, which is the realm we are concerned about because of confusion among donors as to whether the money is going to Komen or not.”
Sure, BIG PHARMA is no problem for Komen, but “Knitting for the Cure”? Ms. Rader confirms that Komen must protect its trademarks, that Komen’s “cure” activities include not only research but also “education, screening, treatment programs and advocacy work,” that “84 cents of every dollar…goes to all of these programs,” and that the phrase “for the cure” means that a “donation is going to Susan G. Komen for the Cure for this work.” However, Staley’s original posting also pointed out that of the $331 million Komen raised in donations and revenues in 2009, roughly 21 percent went to research. Staley was dumfounded that “an organization that is actively pursuing other small charities over the use of the term “for the cure” does NOT spend the majority of their own funds towards RESEARCH FOR A CURE.” It’s a valid point.
Though many organizations and individuals, including Staley, take issue with Komen’s definition of cure and methods of trying to achieve it, Komen’s ethical (not legal) rights to the phrase “for the cure” as intellectual property, Komen’s standards for raising funds, and the value of one organization holding pink dominion in breast cancer advocacy, Rosenthal raises none of these issues.
[Note: For more discussion of these and related issues, see: The Battle "For the Cure" - The Phrase, That is ; Is Any Awareness Good Awareness? ; Fatigue Indeed; NBCC's 2020 Deadline; Pinktober and A New Era; and Birth of the Perpetual Fundraising Industry.]
Rosenthal has a clear affinity for the Komen organization and wrote a favorable article about Komen’s new CEO Liz Thompson on November 25, 2010 in Oncology Times that emphasized what he believed to be a shift in the organization toward more science and research. Certainly the public has a vested interest in knowing how the new Komen CEO will attend to scientific research, and the jury is still out on that matter. In the midst of a cancer epidemic, turf wars, and a growing lack of public trust about Komen’s behavior, we need more than hope for the future and biblical references to frame the public discussion.
We need deep understanding of what is at stake, and for whom. We need to hear from a broad range of people who have an interest in seeing the total cancer epidemic end. We even need to consider the possibility that a consumerist approach to breast cancer advocacy may be doing more harm than good. Comedian Steven Colbert sees the ridiculousness of all this. Why doesn’t Mr. Rosenthal?