Is Salesforce.com's attempt to trademark ‘social enterprise’ a good or bad move?

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Salesforce.com has applied to the UK Intellectual Property Office to trademark the term ‘social enterprise’, according to rumours circling the philanthropic sector.

Last week Social Enterprise Live claimed that the software giant submitted an application to trademark the term on 24 July and that the firm has already posted 'TM' next to the words on its company website. 

Online news site Third Sector also reported that Salesforce.com is attempting to trademark the term in the US and Jamaica whilst a further report from Social Enterprise UK (SEUK) claims that the firm has now extended their application to own the term 'social enterprise' in the EU.

With the trademark, Salesforce.com intends to present its product portfolio under this banner but an established philanthropic movement that has been going for many years - far older than the social media movement - also uses the term to define businesses that aim to bring about social and environmental change. 

Attempting to protect the traditional social enterprise sector, chief of SEUK Peter Holbrook contacted Salesforce.com numerous times to discuss the alleged trademark bid but has been refused a conversation.

MyCustomer.com also contacted the software giant but a spokesperson advised Salesforce.com isn't commenting on this story.

Following his failed attempts to engage the software giant, Holbrook instead sent a letter to the firm, stating: "For Salesforce to jeopardise in anyway the social enterprise sector’s progress wouldn’t do much for their reputation. We have taken legal advice and will take the necessary steps to protect the term social enterprise of behalf of all those in the sector."

Since then, SEUK has launched a campaign in a bid to help safeguard the 68,000 social enterprises it says exist in the UK. 'Not In Our Name' encourages social enterprise entrepreneurs to post a supporting statement on websites, emails, company newsletters and social media.  

So, should the allegations be true, and in the case that Salesforce.com does win its applications to trademark the term 'social enterprise', what will this mean for the CRM industry as well as the philanthropic sector?

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Some have claimed the Cloud giant's attempt to collar the phrase is a predictable move. Ian Moyse from cloud CRM provider Workbooks.com believes that this term-grabbing move is one often demonstrated by large firms as they attempt to gain presence in sectors they see as the future.

He adds: "Sometimes these moves can be more annoying and signs of corporate power to the average consumer. Organisations can better earn the right to use the term than demand they own it! Take Facebook, the movie named it The Social Network it didn’t need to buy the term, mention social networking and its nigh on the first name on everyone’s lips by reputation not ownership."

Paul Greenberg, seminal author of CRM at the Speed of Light, told MyCustomer.com that if Salesforce.com does manage to trademark the term, they will be smart about it. 

He says: "This whole Salesforce.com trademarking of social enterprise is a tempest in a teapot. If Salesforce.com successfully trademarks social enterprise in several countries, at the same time, since they are a very smart company, they will take the prudent course of action and not contest someone's generic use of it, though, of course, I can't speak for them.

"Maybe if someone decided to make it a product name they would do something but for the general industry use it currently has – as a descriptor and at times as a description of an offering, but not the name of an offering – I would have to presume, trademark or not, they would do what they usually do – the smart thing – which would be to let it be. Honestly, I can't imagine they wouldn't. They're too good at what they do."

However, by and large the reaction to the rumours has been largely negative - both from Salesforce.com's perspective and that of the traditional social enterprise industry. 

Steve Poncini from social collaboration software provider Telligent doesn't believe the phrase is one that can be trademarked. 

He says: "Being social at work means different things for different businesses; does it mean using collaboration platforms, bringing social media into the business model or ensuring that products centre around a social offering? Social enterprise means all of these things and can’t be pinned down by a trademark."

Philanthropic response

And what about those in the philanthropic sector that define themselves as social enterprises that use "the power of business to bring about social and environmental change without a single term to unite them"?

Dan Martin, editor of BusinessZone.co.uk and blogger behind Social Enterprise Focus, said: "I’m a huge fan of social enterprises (in the non-Salesforce sense of the word!) and the sector has made great strides to go mainstream and gain the sort of public support that movements like Fairtrade have attracted. But there’s still a huge way to go until most people fully understand exactly what the social enterprise way of doing business is and Salesforce’s attempt to trademark the term doesn’t help.

"I don’t think Salesforce will be successful but I do know that it will anger a lot of passionate social entrepreneurs. Ironically though, it might raise the profile of a sector that needs more public support."

Servane Mouazan from Ogunte, a company that supports and connects women in the social enterprise sector, claims that any commercial company that isolates and trademarks the term would negate the work female entrepreneurs have done so far. 

She says: "It would be anti-"social" by definition to confiscate a term that many communities in the world consider as belonging to the public domain and that represents - not just a tool to connect people - but a collective movement for social and environmental change."

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