A year after the unexpected death of its founder, Todd Bol, the Little Free Library nonprofit literacy organization and Bol’s family are at odds, with each side claiming that it is acting to protect Bol’s legacy, and that the other is undermining it.
While Little Free Library sponsors unorthodox literacy initiatives with partners all over the world, it is best known for the first initiative it launched 10 years ago: weatherproof wooden boxes containing books free for the taking that are placed in people’s front yards and public spaces. To date, there are 90,000 little library boxes in 90 countries.
Bol, who set up the first book box in front of his mother’s Wisconsin home in 2009, first trademarked the term “Little Free Library” in 2012, about the same time the organization became a 501-c-3 nonprofit. This past June, says Tony Bol, Todd’s brother, the organization filed three separate applications for new trademarks with the U.S. Patent Office regarding the term, “Little Free Library,” used in connection with the words, “wooden boxes with a storage area for books,” and “signs, non-luminous and non-mechanical, of metal,” and “guest books and rubber stamps.”
If approved, these trademarks would allow the organization to, Tony explained, “stake trademark claims over all wooden book boxes, book boxes with signs, and book boxes with guest books, allowing for monopolization of the Little Free Library movement as a marketplace.”
This would mean, he noted, that if any individual or neighborhood organization built and displayed any type of wooden book box, they could be subject to legal action, even if they called the container by another name.
“To me,” said Tony, noting that he speaks for Todd’s wife and two children as well, “overreach is the issue. It takes a lot for the family to do this, but it’s about protecting the movement Todd started. This isn’t about one organization: it’s about a grassroots movement. We’re protecting groups that don’t register with LFL but want to still call [their boxes] little free libraries.”
The Bol family submitted a formal protest to the U.S. Patent Office about two weeks ago, objecting to LFL wanting to trademark the words, “wooden boxes with a storage area for books,” when used in connection with “Little Free Library.” The family is asking supporters to join them in filing letters with the U.S. Patent Office in opposition to the proposed trademarks.
LFL executive director Greig Metzger, who has been in the position for four months, sees things differently. Metzger explains that LFL works with like-minded nonprofits all over the world to advance literacy, and that it provides support for those who want to “go their own way” and not register their box with LFL, even providing instructions for those who want to construct their own book boxes rather than purchase them from the organization.
But, he adds, LFL does not condone for-profit businesses, such as the organization that Tony founded last December and now heads -- Share With Others -- making money off of the concept by selling products using the LFL trademark.
Share With Others sells exchange boxes -- both book boxes and pantry boxes (that can be filled with free food) -- with the intention of donating funds to like-minded nonprofits. Share With Others also hopes to launch a family foundation in Todd’s honor that will benefit literacy nonprofit organizations.
“We’re like Newman’s Own or Tom’s or Love Your Melon,” Tony said, “We’re a for-profit that advances the concept of sharing,”
“Share With Others must recognize the intellectual property underlying the LFL brand,” Metzger says in response. “We’re asserting trademark with for-profit businesses. Selling [book boxes described as little free libraries] by for-profit organizations is a violation of our trademark. If [individuals and nonprofits] want to use little free libraries as a means of engaging with their community, that’s fine; we’re not going to go out suing people for putting up a box.”
Noting that LFL will register its 100,000th book box by spring, Metzger said, “We are moving forward, building upon the legacy Todd created. Promoting literacy by giving people access to books.”
The for-profit organization that Tony Bol heads is called Share With Others. The earlier version of this story has been corrected. Comments made by Greig Metzger regarding the Little Free Library trademark have been clarified.