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Boy Scouts of America threatens to sue Hacker Scouts over name

August 20, 2013|By Paresh Dave
  • Samantha Matalone Cook helped launch Hacker Scouts as a better way to teach kids about science, technology and engineering.
Samantha Matalone Cook helped launch Hacker Scouts as a better way to teach… (Chris O'Brien / Los Angeles…)

Last year, Oakland resident Samantha Matalone Cook wanted to find a better way to teach kids about science, technology and engineering. An educator, writer and artist who home schools her three kids, Cook and some friends hatched a concept they called Hacker Scouts.

The idea was to teach kids a range of concepts such as soldering, building electrical circuits, robotics and even sewing. The kids would form guilds and, as they completed projects, earn badges. 

In an era when the Maker Movement is a growing phenomenon, Hacker Scouts spread like crazy. Within less than a year after launching, Cook and her partners were overwhelmed not just with applications for their local guilds, but from inquiries from people around the country who wanted to start their own guilds. 

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But this success has put them in the cross hairs of the Boy Scouts of America. In May, the Boy Scouts sent Hacker Scouts a letter demanding that the group drop "scouts" from its name or face a lawsuit. Hacker Scouts replied, hoping to reach a compromise. But Cook said that the Boy Scouts had no interest in dropping its demand.

After weeks of mulling over what to do, Cook on Monday went public with the dispute to make sure the Hacker Scouts community was aware of the situation. She wrote a blog post on the Hacker Scouts website (which promptly crashed after being overwhelmed with traffic).

"We believe in our name and our right to use the word 'scouts'," Cook wrote. "The BSA's main argument is that they have a constitutional charter that they interpret to mean they have the right to use and trademark any word they choose. We disagree."

The Boy Scouts have held a congressional charter since 1916 that gives the organization the "exclusive right to use emblems, badges, descriptive or designating marks, and words or phrases" that it adopts. Groups such as the Girl Scouts of the USA, Red Cross and Little League Baseball have similar protection. 

Typically, trademark owners must prove that alleged infringers are causing confusion among customers. But courts have held that chartered organizations have more leeway and don't have to make that argument.

"We believe that it is outdated and violates trademark law," Cook said in an interview Tuesday. "That organization might have been filling a need in a very different time and a very different world, but now other organizations might be filling new needs."

Cook added that the Boy Scouts wasn't on her mind when developing Hacker Scouts, and that some members also belong to either Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Changing the name they've all grown attached to would be inconsistent with some of the values -- persistence, for one -- that it tries to teach children, she said.

Boy Scouts public relations director Deron Smith said in a statement that the 103-year-old group "has delivered the nation's foremost youth program ... by combining adventure, educational activities and lifelong values."

He said the Boy Scouts applauds groups with similar principles, but that the organization "has a responsibility" to its members to maintain "trademarks, symbols, words and phrases" that create "a sense of belonging."

"As any organization would do, from time to time, it's necessary for the BSA to take steps to protect its intellectual property and brand," he said. "The BSA plans to continue corresponding with this organization in hopes of reaching an amicable resolution."

Hacker Scouts isn't the first Bay Area scouting group to draw notice from the Boy Scouts. In 2008, the National Council of Youthscouts reached a confidential settlement after a U.S. District Court judge ruled in favor of the Boy Scouts.

Youthscouts argued that the Boy Scouts had unconstitutional control over the generic terms "scout" and "scouting." But the judge said the claim had no merit. Youthscouts founder Greg Wrenn declined to comment.

In her blog post, Cook said the Hacker Scouts organization hasn't decided what to do next. 

"Our board will be making a decision soon, based on advice from our lawyers and our own sense of duty," Cook wrote. "Our primary responsibility is to act in service of our mission and the kids we serve."

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