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Pascal Paradis, head of Lawyers Without Borders Canada (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon)
Pascal Paradis, head of Lawyers Without Borders Canada (Francis Vachon/Francis Vachon)

Use of 'Lawyers Without Borders' tag fuels legal skirmish Add to ...

Ever since Médecins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) was founded 40 years ago in France, its catchy name has been copied by a staggering array of unaffiliated groups. Engineers Without Borders now brings clean water to African villages, while Acupuncturists Without Borders pokes needles into people's necks in Haiti.

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Perhaps the "without borders" suffix has become too popular: Two similar charities, one based in Canada and the other in the United States, are now locked in a battle over the right to call themselves "Lawyers Without Borders." Perhaps not surprisingly, with lawyers involved, the fight has ended up in court.

The two combatants are not really "without borders" at all. One is north of the border, the Quebec City-based wing of an international group headquartered in Belgium, Avocats Sans Frontières, and known in English as Lawyers Without Borders Canada.

The other, which actually holds the Canadian trademark on the name Lawyers Without Borders, is American, known as Lawyers Without Borders Inc., and based in Hartford, Conn. Both groups say they send volunteer lawyers to developing countries to help establish the rule of law.

The Canadian charity, which was founded in 2002, has enlisted lawyers from two of Canada's most prestigious law firms - McCarthy Tétrault LLP and Ogilvy Renault LLP - to take legal action against the U.S. group in Federal Court, trying to strip it of the right to use the name in Canada.

"We would prefer to talk about human rights," said Pascal Paradis, executive director of Lawyers Without Borders Canada, who said he hopes a settlement can be reached.

"We hope we don't have to litigate this and go to the end," he said in an interview. "… But it's important for us that the good will associated with the [name]that we built is recognized as belonging to Lawyers Without Borders Canada."

In court filings, his group argues that Lawyers Without Borders Inc. has no office, employees or operations in Canada.

The U.S. group, founded in 2000, says in court documents that it has been using the trademark in Canada and working with Canadian lawyers on pro-bono projects. It says it has had a "permanent representative" at an office in Toronto since 2003.

It registered the Canadian trademark on the name in 2003 - something the other Lawyers Without Borders only discovered when it first tried to trademark the name in 2008. (Mr. Paradis acknowledges his group should have trademarked its name earlier, but says it was too busy with its human rights work.)

The U.S. group's Toronto lawyer, Michael Crinson of Dimock Stratton LLP, says his client would rather not be in court over its name: "They don't really want to spend their time dealing with fights over trademarks. They'd rather focus on developing the rule of law in developing countries."

It's by no means the first legal fight over a "without borders" name. But in most cases, it has been Doctors Without Borders itself on the offensive.

The charity has sent other upstart "without borders" groups demands that they stop using the similar names. With some, it then signs "co-existence agreements" that force unaffiliated groups to put disclaimers on their websites. In other cases, it has gone to court.

When Médecins Sans Frontières told Engineers Without Borders USA to change its name, that group sought help from Lawyers Without Borders Inc. to negotiate its co-existence deal.

MSF and Engineers Without Borders now work together on projects. But MSF says it is staying out of the Lawyers Without Borders fight.

Avril Benôit, a spokeswoman for MSF in Canada, defended the group's attempts to protect its name. She said the aid agency primarily wants to avoid confusion, especially in war zones where the actions of a renegade "without borders" group could put her field workers at risk.

But she acknowledged that the sheer number of groups using the name make it an impossible fight: "We can't fight the tide ourselves. It's a lost battle."

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A WELL-USED HANDLE

It has become a cliché without borders.

If it wasn't enough that scores of charities have sprung up to use the ubiquitous "without borders" suffix, several businesses have also joined in.

Anheuser Busch Inc. has used "Beer Without Borders" to market Budweiser. A dog kennel near Kingston, Ont., calls itself "Dogs Without Borders" and says on its website that it donates some of its profits to Doctors Without Borders.

(The Globe and Mail has a regular feature called "Business Without Borders" and, along with Canadian Business magazine, provides content for a website of the same name to highlight stories about international business. The slogan is a trademark of the feature's sponsor, HSBC Bank Canada.)

According to a search of the Canada Revenue Agency charity database, 20 registered charities in Canada use "without borders" in their name. A Google search reveals scores of groups in the United States and elsewhere. Here is a sampling:

Builders Without Borders (Vancouver)

Dentists Without Borders (Calgary)

Firefighters Without Borders (North Vancouver)

Forests Without Borders (Mattawa, Ont.)

Growing Without Borders (Montreal)

Hydrogeologists Without Borders (Calgary)

Potters Without Borders (Enderby, B.C.)

Veterinarians Without Borders (Victoria)

Teachers Without Borders (Seattle)

Librarians Without Borders (founded at the University of Western Ontario in London).

Reporters Without Borders (Paris)

Magicians Without Borders (Lincoln, Vt.)

Clowns Without Borders (San Francisco)

Elephants Without Borders (Kasane, Botswana)

Boarders Without Borders (Skateboarders, that is, in Victoria, B.C.)

Surfers Without Borders (Affiliated with the Ocean Foundation in Washington, D.C.)

Roboticists Without Borders (a project of the Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue of Texas A&M University, College Station, Tex.)

Follow on Twitter: @jeffreybgray

 

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