Are You Violating a “Massage Therapy” Trademark?

Shiny Trademark SymbolDo you use the words “massage therapy” in any of your advertising? If so, you may possibly be violating trademark law. Read on to find out more…

This is the second in a series of posts looking at some broader issues in the massage profession, perhaps even bringing to light some little known facts about massage in the process. In the first post, I looked at the question of who owns massage by looking at two types of regulation that are commonly used to govern massage and bodywork. Now let’s look at who owns the words “massage therapy”.

Side note: I’m not a lawyer, so I’m just communicating my understanding of the matter. Feel free to correct me in the comments section if there are any inaccuracies in my reporting.

Ownership of a word or phrase is usually obtained by registering it as a trademark.

“A trademark is a word (or words), a design, or a combination of these, used to identify the goods or services of one person or organization and to distinguish these goods or services from those of others in the marketplace.”

Trademarks are usually specific to each country, except for countries that have set up arrangements otherwise, as exists in some European countries. So a registered trademark in the USA is not applicable in Mexico, for example.

A search through the United States Patent and Trademark Office database shows no trademark for the term “massage therapy”. The term is used as part of the trademark of longer company names however. For example, “massage therapy journal” is a registered trademark of the American Massage Therapy Association (which is also a trademarked name).

However, a search through the Canadian Intellectual Property Office database shows that “massage therapy” is in fact a registered trademark. Most people don’t know that the term “massage therapy” has been trademarked in Canada by the College of Massage Therapists of Ontario (CMTO), the regulatory body for massage therapy in Ontario, Canada and has been an actively protected trademark since 1999.

Personally, it seems shocking that any organization would try to maintain control over a term like “massage therapy”. One of the key characteristics of a trademark is its distinctiveness and the term massage therapy would be considered a generic phrase that is commonly used by both professionals and the public, both in Canada and internationally, to describe professional massage services.

I haven’t seen an reported instance of the CMTO launching a court case to defend it’s trademark and it seems difficult to imagine that a court of law would enforce the rights to such a generic term. Why would the CMTO trademark the phrase? Surely they would never enforce their ownership of the trademark. Or would they?

I was contacted by a holistic practitioner a number of years ago and she was issued what amounted to a cease and desist order from the CMTO for using the term massage therapy on her brochure. She never claimed to offer massage therapy, but was contrasting her services from massage therapy, basically saying that what she offered was different from massage therapy.

This was the first time I had ever heard of the CMTO actively enforcing their trademark. It appeared that some massage therapist didn’t like this bodyworker and had lodged a complaint to the College. The practitioner was in a bit of a panic, as anyone who receives these kinds of letters would be, and didn’t know what to do. I wrote to her massage association on her behalf, the largest Canadian massage association at the time, and the association responded to say that they would put their full weight behind the effort to defend her right to use the term. I don’t know how it all ended, but I never heard of the issue escalating, so my assumption is that the CMTO backed off on its position.

The bottom line: If you are in Canada you need to be aware that the CMTO owns the trademark for “massage therapy”. Although their exclusive rights to the phrase has never been challenged in a court of law, if you use those words in your advertising it is possible that you could find yourself in a legal battle to test their claim.