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‘Border’ struggle erupts over name

Milton volunteer group pressured

By David Abel
Globe Staff / March 4, 2010

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Three years ago, after decades of performing volunteer operations worldwide, George Whitelaw decided he wanted to do something that would have a broader impact.

The orthopedic surgeon from Milton started a small nonprofit organization to provide primary care to children in Central America. He called his organization Children Without Borders, because “our treatment is without borders, and our patients are without borders,’’ he said.

The operation was running smoothly - it had grown to have a $60,000 annual budget and three clinics in Costa Rica - until last summer, when Whitelaw received a cease-and-desist letter from a similar but vastly larger organization, Doctors Without Borders. The Geneva-based organization, which employs 27,000 people and has an annual budget of more than $800 million, said the group was infringing on its trademark and threatened legal action if Whitelaw did not change its name.

“It didn’t make any sense to us and seemed like a classic scenario of a big, powerful organization using its clout to undermine and force out a small organization,’’ Whitelaw said. “We just feel it’s crazy that they would spend their resources going after a little mom-and-pop operation like ours, when they could be spending that money on helping people. There has never been any intent or action on our part to associate ourselves with them.’’

This week, Children Without Borders filed a preemptive lawsuit in federal court against Doctors Without Borders, seeking a judgment that would declare the Milton organization’s name does not infringe on the larger organization’s trademark.

Officials at Doctors Without Borders said that they are reviewing the lawsuit and that their initial action was motivated solely to protect their doctors, many of whom work in dangerous countries.

“Our concern really extends to the fact that our name is inextricably linked to the safety and security of our field teams that work in over 60 countries around the world,’’ said Jason Cone, communications director of Doctors Without Borders in New York. “We’ve spent the better part of 39 years building up name recognition and the understanding of our being an independent, neutral, and impartial medical organization. Those principles help us gain access to the most dangerous conflict zones around the world.’’

Cone said it was not the first time that Doctors Without Borders, perhaps better known globally by its French moniker, Médecins Sans Frontières, has sued to protect its name. In fact, the organization last year prodded another outfit that called itself Children Without Borders to change its name.

Other organizations have similar names, such as Reporters Without Borders, Teachers Without Borders, Engineers Without Borders, and Students Without Borders. Cone said those groups do not compromise Doctors Without Borders, because they do not have medical missions.

“Our concern of their use of ‘Without Borders’ is that their organization has the ambition of doing medical work overseas, and we don’t want there to be confusion,’’ said Cone, noting his organization’s lawyers learned of the Milton group’s name from a Google Alert. “Having another organization that is working in the field of medical care overseas could lead to serious confusion about our working principles.’’

In its lawsuit, Children Without Borders argues that it would be an unfair burden to change its name, because of the good will it has generated in the field and the “considerable time, money, and effort [invested] in advertising and promoting its service.’’

Gerald Phelps, a Quincy lawyer who volunteered his time to draft the lawsuit, said the actions by Doctors Without Borders has made it harder for Whitelaw to raise money and concentrate on expanding his operations in Costa Rica. He added that they have not provided any evidence to show that the similar names would negatively affect their doctors. “This stuff they’re doing is impinging on Children Without Borders’ ability to serve children in need,’’ he said.

Phelps said he and Whitelaw have had several conversations with lawyers from Doctors Without Borders and have offered to post a disclaimer on their literature and website, pointing out that they have no affiliation with Doctors Without Borders. They said the lawyers rejected their proposed compromise.

Cone said a disclaimer would be insufficient. “Given the issues at play, that would never be an acceptable settlement,’’ he said.

He argued that this was the time for Children Without Borders to change its name, before it grows larger. “These are very important rights we’re trying to protect,’’ Cone said. “It has nothing to do with their size; it’s about the principles.’’

Whitelaw refused to change the name and called the pressure against him preposterous. “If you Google Children Without Borders, you won’t see Doctors Without Borders,’’ he said. “Our organization models are totally different . . . They have said they would take their case as far as they could against us. All we’re saying is leave us alone.’’

David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com.