The Boys Scouts of America and Hacker Scouts logos.

The Boys Scouts of America and Hacker Scouts logos.

There are a lot of people in the maker community pretty upset with the Boy Scouts of America (BSA) right now. There is an organization out of Oakland, Calif. called “Hacker Scouts,” (point of information: we at MAKE are friends with the folks who run it and indeed one of our employees is on their board) and they recently revealed that they’ve been in a legal tussle with the BSA for the last few months because the BSA doesn’t want them to use the term “scouts” in their name.

OK, one step back: yes, the BSA has trademark protection on the words “scouts” and “scouting.” It was granted to them by Congressional Charter in the 1920s and reinforced by the Supreme Court. There have been subsequent challenges to this over the years, which the courts have ruled against. Yes, the Girl Scouts have a similar charter, and so in a way share the words. If fact, you might be amused (or bemused) by some of the marks the BSA lays claim to:

  • Arrow of Light
  • Black Bull
  • Do Your Best
  • Space Derby
  • Venture

The problem arises in that when you are a corporation like the BSA (even if you are a non-profit), if you do not defend your trademarks vigorously, they will weaken in the eyes of the law, thus diminishing your brand and the value of your corporation. From a business mindset, that would be a bad thing. And yes, the BSA is a business – a billion-dollar business that licenses its logos and mottos for sale, and collects fees from its membership. That’s not to say they are exploiting anyone. They provide what many, many people see to be a valuable service. They have to raise money to provide that service, and while their balance sheet must total $0 profit at the end of each year, they have to run a tight ship to achieve their goals and keep their membership happy. They have to be a good business.

As an aside, I’d like to put two quotes next to each other for comparison:

[Scouting] encourages the relentless pursuit of knowledge through relevant hands-on activities, mentorship, community and family engagement, and the development of a strong moral character and leadership skills through our core values.

[Scouting builds] the future leaders of this country by combining educational activities and lifelong values with fun. [We know] that helping youth is a key to building a more conscientious, responsible, and productive society.

Without googling, I think most people would be hard-pressed to object with either purpose statement, or to know which organization which one came from.

The Hacker Scouts have, like a number of similar organizations over the years, stepped into legal trouble with the BSA. Calling yourself a scouting organization, especially one that works with kids, just can’t be done in the U.S. without the permission of the Boy Scouts. That’s not because the BSA are necessarily bad actors in this case; from a legal and business sense, they are doing exactly what they need to in order to protect their business. Unfortunately while it seems reasonable to argue that the words “scout” and “scouting” shouldn’t be under the trademark protection they are, the courts have disagreed as recently as 2008.

Are there any other options? Here are the ones we can think of:

  • Overturn the BSA’s charter: Getting the BSA’s charter broken has been tried, and failed. Indeed, with the number of former Boy Scouts serving in Congress, that’s not terribly surprising.
  • Don’t use scouting: Giving up on the “scouting” name would solve the problem entirely, but the Hacker Scouts (and the MakerScouts like them) have built successful followings based on these names, and it seems unreasonable that one group should be able to control what is at its heart an idea. Giving up and re-branding should be the last resort, and hopefully an unnecessary one.
  • Make a deal: from the reports, this is what the Hacker Scouts have been trying to do; come to some kind of licensing deal with the BSA to use the name, but be clear they aren’t part of the BSA. But the BSA has been intransigent. They’ve been down this road before, and succeeded. They are sticking to their guns, and being (in their perspective) stalwart and resolved in their duty. This seems like an uphill battle.

But instead of attacking the BSA for what are justifiably good business practices, why don’t we talk to them about the bigger picture? Why can’t the BSA treat this as not a legal or business issue, but a moral one?

This is about kids. This is about organizations that want to emulate Robert Baden-Powell’s goal of providing a framework for young people to develop character through learning self-sufficiency and making things themselves. This is about understanding there can be multiple paths to the same goal, and that there needs to be a variety of organizations to allow all kids to find the path that’s right for them.

This is about realizing that doing the best we can for our kids is more important than protecting a corporation’s branding.

Our challenge to the Boy Scouts of America is then to do what’s morally right here: work out a licensing framework for organizations that want to call themselves “scouts” that protects the BSA’s business interests while reinforcing the core goal of scouting, which is to help kids. The BSA has seen across-the-board declines in memberships recently (nearly 10 percent drop in registered youths in the last eight years while the overall population of kids has increased), and increasing the number of organizations in this space is just the kind of diversification that could ensure that more kids than ever come to value scouting, just not Scouting®. I guarantee that the good will this would engender towards their organization would be worth far more than what they think they’re protecting by fighting with those who have the very same goal.

Ken Denmead

Ken is the Grand Nagus of GeekDad.com. He’s a husband and father from the SF Bay Area, and has written three books filled with projects for geeky parents and kids to share.


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