When the LMG was founded in 2017, it was not yet clear how it would evolve. Since then, we organized three I,Scientist conferences and numerous other activities. It is not unreasonable to say that the LMG became an organisation well known for its engagement for gender equality.
Not publicly known until now, are the efforts made by patent attorney Dr. Renate Weisse to register the names “LMG” and “I,Scientist” as word and figurative marks. Dr. Weisse was a speaker at the first I,Scientist conference and since then a huge supporter of the LMG and its objectives. She made the LMG board aware of the possibility to register these marks and took it upon herself to do so in fall 2017. No one expected any complications, it was standard procedure. Well, we were wrong and what started as administrative process soon became an example of gender prejudices in German courts and administration…
A few weeks after applying for the registration of the word and figurative marks, the first roadblocks started to appear: In an Office Action a registration of ‘Lise Meitner Gesellschaft’ as a word mark was not considered possible as it being descriptive of the name ‘Lise Meitner’. This was surprising considering there are many more associations named after famous people, e. g. Max Planck Gesellschaft. An inquiry revealed that the examiner assumed that the LMG is concerned with the life and work of Lise Meitner, which would have made a registration of an association under that name impossible. Following this, the application was modified in December 2017 to include a disclaimer that anything concerning activities around Lise Meitner as a person should be exempted.
However, in March 2018 a new action was presented that again refused the registration of the word mark. The reasons given were that the LMG is concerned with gender equality in natural sciences which is linked to Lise Meitner and her life. To prove this, several programs that bear the name Lise Meitner were cited. Dr. Weisse wrote an amazing reply summing up the entire issue perfectly. A translation of a short excerpt reads as follows: ‘[…] The action claims that ‘Lise Meitner as person is also linked to the issue of equality for women in the natural sciences. That’s not true. Lise Meitner was a nuclear physicist and not a social scientist and had nothing to do with gender issues. […] The referenced specialist program for equal opportunities mentions the Lise Meitner program to promote the habilitation of women in North Rhine-Westphalia. This program is a funding program for the habilitation of scientists, not to promote equality of women. It supports women scientists from all disciplines and not especially women scientists from the social sciences who deal with gender equality issues. So, the focus is primarily on Lise Meitner’s quality as an outstanding scientist and not on her quality as a woman (which she (coincidentally) is) or an expert on gender equality issues (which she is not proven to be). To emphasize only Lise Meitner’s quality as a woman and not – as the applicant does – her quality as an exceptional scientist, akin to societies named after Leibniz, Max Planck or Fraunhofer, would completely contradict the applicant’s request. Lise Meitner has made a name for herself in the natural sciences, not in gender equality. In case of a man, e.g. Max Planck, it would be unimaginable to remove individual goods and services from the list of trademarks, because someone somewhere was researching the question of whether Max Planck exhibited behaviour that was typical of men, or somewhere a Max Planck Medal was awarded. […]’
Surprisingly this still did not convince the patent and trademark office that the LMG is not concerned with the work of Lise Meitner and the application was rejected by final decision. Therefore, Dr. Weisse launched an appeal with the German Federal Patent Court in May 2019.
We received a preliminary legal assessment of the chances of success in October 2020. It picked up the arguments of the patent and trademark office and stated that even though Lise Meitner was never directly involved with gender equality in natural sciences, her name is still connected to the topic. In her response Dr. Weisse again pointed out that there are several associations named after (male) scientists, independent of the concrete purpose of the organisation. Therefore, in case that the complaint is rejected, she applied to be granted the possibility to appeal. Thereby, it should be examined in general under which circumstances the patent and trademark office has to take into account that there are similar already registered trademarks and has to include the result of the analysis in the office action. Additionally, Dr Weisse stated that Lise Meitner herself never published on gender equality and that a program to promote gender equality named after her does not describe a close relationship with Lise Meitner’s life. Even natural scientists interested in gender equality issues know only the work and scientific achievements of Lise Meitner and thus associate her name with nuclear physics and not issues of equality.
In October 2021, the invitation for an oral hearing at the Federal Patent Court was issued. However, before the hearing took place Dr. Weisse had an exchange with the senate’s rapporteur by phone and once again described her arguments. Somewhat surprisingly, they suddenly seemed to be more convinced and felt that the senate could reach a positive decision even without an oral hearing.
And indeed, on the 17th of January 2022 the Federal Patent Court decided to repeal the action of the trade mark office and now the trade mark ‘Lise Meitner Gesellschaft can be registered!
So, what can we learn from this process?
1. There still is a lot of bias against women scientists. Apparently, they are automatically experts on gender equality…
2. Sometimes, stating a good argument once is not enough. However, persistence does pay off.
3. If it weren’t for people like Dr. Weisse, who threw herself into our case (PRO BONO!!), we would not have won this struggle, and we wouldn’t have managed to push equality in Germany just a bit further along.
One might argue that the registration of a trademark is really not important. Dr. Weisse would certainly disagree*. Nonetheless, this case is just one of many cases out there, where women have to fight harder than a man ever would have to. It is likely that a word mark including a male scientist’s name would have never faced such issues. Therefore, the hurdles that needed to be overcome to register the Lise-Meitner-Gesellschaft as word mark is just another sign on how gender equality is still far away on a structural level.
Last but not least we want to thank Dr Weisse, for her time, her persistence and for taking on this endeavour for us!
If you have questions regarding intellectual property or invented
something or are in the process of doing so, don’t hesitate to contact Dr. Weisse ‘on questions of patent application! You find her contact data HERE.