Who "Owns" NLP?

L. Michael Hall, Ph.D.

Do you remember the old TV game show from years ago, "Truth or Consequences"? Suppose it was still on. Suppose we could invite various people or organizations from around the globe who thought they "owned" NLP. We could then ask each questions to see if we could figure it out. Then at the end, at the final suspenseful moment, the announcer would say:

"Will the true "owner" of NLP please stand up?"

In recent years, there have been a lot of lawsuits in the USA and the UK over NLP and over this question. Well, let me restate that. Actually the lawsuits were not about ownership of NLP, but about a much narrower question. They have been concerned with who controlled the trademark of NLP, the Society of NLP in the USA, and who could therefore do trade under that mark, namely, control what constituted authentic and recognized "NLP Training." Typically, whoever files for and obtains a trademark, has control over the business that they do under that trademark.

You can find some of the results of the law suits on the web site of the Association of NLP (ANLP) in the UK (see http://www.anlp.org/). The following comes from that site to give a flavor of that current state of affairs.

"At a hearing on 19 May it was determined that Richard Bandler has not owned The Society since 1982. Ownership rests with six people (referred to as The Bandler Group). It has not been determined whether Bandler is or is not a member of the Bandler Group. This means that effectively from the date of the 1982 action it is deemed that Richard Bandler does not own or exercise any rights over the Society of Neuro-Linguistic Programming."

News item - 3 April 2000. "The lawsuit in the USA filed on behalf of Richard Bandler (see below) has now been settled, unless there is any appeal. Chris Hall has been awarded $600,000 damages plus costs against Richard Bandler."

"The Court found that... 'Bandler has misrepresented to the public, through his licensing agreement and promotional materials, that he is the exclusive owner of all intellectual property rights associated with NLP, and maintains the exclusive authority to determine membership in and certification in the Society of NLP.'"

http://www.anlp.org/imagepage1.htm  (This is a graphic file of the court document. Hard to read but it can be made out. (See Endnote 2)

News Item: 12 December 2000.

"In the High Court of London today (12 December 2000), Paul McKenna and McKenna Breen were adjudged to have committed a serious libel. The case had been brought by Dr. Tracie O'Keefe in response to an offensive article posted on the McKenna Breen web site. Damages of 7000 pounds plus costs were awarded to Dr. O'Keefe."

Both in the UK and in the United States, legal battles have gone on for years and were finally settled in the winter of 1999 and spring of 2000, again depriving Richard Bandler of control over the field and giving ownership of "The Society of NLP" to six persons including Chris Hall.

In the meantime, NLP training Centers and Institutes in the USA and UK and around the world continue to provide the classic format of Practitioner and Master Practitioner training as well as training for Trainers of the model. In addition, there are hundreds of application trainings, some in health, others in business, yet others for personal development. There are trainings for specific patterns and processes (Core Transformation, Dominant Eye, Meta-States, etc.) There are long and short courses for the public, there are long and short courses inside of businesses and corporations. There are teachers using it in classrooms, lawyers in courtrooms, and doctors in clinics and hospital rooms, and therapists in consulting rooms.

In the meantime, NLP is showing up in scores and scores of books being published every year as NLP books. This doesn't include hundreds of other books that refer to it, include a chapter about it, present one or more patterns about it, etc. There are also scores if not hundreds of radio and television talk shows about NLP.

And last, but not least at all, there are thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands of people using NLP every day to run their own brain, manage their states, figure things out, modeling, etc.

The Ownership of NLP

As an idea, NLP cannot be "owned" in the sense that it belongs to one person and not to another.

As an idea, in the free market of ideas, NLP is a way of thinking about (a paradigm) human functioning and processing. It arose originally, not from Bandler and Grinder, but from Alfred Korzybski. He first coined the terms Neuro-Linguistic and Neuro-Semantic in 1936 in some papers and then into his 1941 preface to Science and Sanity. In the 1930s and 1940s, Count Korzybski traveled the USA holding "Neuro-Linguistic Trainings." And today, in the two journals of General Semantics, there are numerous writers who just absolutely hate and detest our use of the term "neuro-linguistic." They feel like it belongs to them! I know. Several persons told me so when I spoke at one of their conventions several years ago.

But, ideas cannot be copyrighted, only products (books, audio and video recordings, CDs, etc.). With the expression of ideas (whether in a book, conversation, training, talk show, etc.), ideas run free into the world in the minds of men and women of every race, culture, and language. You can't contain ideas. Nor can you trademark or patent them. Those are for specific procedures or formats that someone invents, like the formula to Coke or Country Fried Chicken. Of course, once the procedure is revealed (like building a nuclear bomb), then the idea is out. It is for anyone who wants it, who can understand it. (See Endnote 1)

Books can be copyrighted. Names, terms, letters, pictures, etc. can be trademarked (see Endnote). But ideas, ah, ideas... human thinking, conceptualizing, understanding, emoting ... cannot. NLP as a model of thoughts, as a way of thinking, as a subsequent way of living (running your own brain), cannot be "owned" by one to the exclusion of others. And, conversely, someone can have all of the NLP books, own NLP Certifications that hang on their walls and not in their heart! They can know about running their own brain, and not be able to actually run their own brain.

Who really owns NLP are those who learn to use the model for mastering their own states and behaviors. They are the ones who own it in a way that doesn't deprive anyone else. In fact, as they own it in that way it enriches everybody they come in contact with.

"But it's My Idea! My Idea!"

Seven or eight years ago I taught a class at Mesa State College here in Grand Junction Colorado on Habits of Effectiveness and used the book, "Seven Habits of Highly Effective People." I liked the book, thought it had some great ideas in it and so proposed the class to the college, and received an okay. I even asked everybody in the class to purchase the book because I wanted to use it as a text. Covey's book, by the way, briefly mentions NLP, and has several NLP patterns in it. Covey also combed through hundreds of other books on self-development for his ideas, especially the works of Benjamin Franklin.

Then one day, I received a call from the para-legal department of the Covey Institute in Salt Lake City, Utah.

"Are you L. Michael Hall?"

Yes, I am.

"We understand you are teaching 'Seven Habits of Highly Effective People' at Mesa State College."

Yes. That's right.

"You can't do that. This is our first warning against you, and against the College."

Really, I didn't know the US Congress had rescinded the Constitutional Amendment.

"What amendment?"

Well, the First Amendment to the Constitution, of course. That is what you're talking about, right? That US citizens no longer have the right to buy a book and spread its ideas, or use a book as a textbook for a class.

"You are not certified to train for the Covey Institute."

That's right. I know that. And that's why I am not presenting myself as doing that. The College catalogue doesn't say that, does it?

"Well, no...."

That conversation was repeated with them two more times over the next two years. They tried to shut down the class again and again. But it went no further than that silly phone conversation. Why? Because in spite of what the paralegal said, they knew that you can't copyright or trademark ideas. Not ideas. You can't even publish a book and then put a restraining order on who can read it, who can make a talk using the book as a text, who can present the ideas, etc. They did things like that in the Dark Ages. They burned books in the early Renaissance period, but those days are done and over, aren't they?

So Who Certifies and Who Gives the Right to Certify?

Ah, that's a very different matter. Certification in every society, discipline, field, etc. is a function of organized bodies. I belong to several certifying bodies, General Semantics, Rational Emotive Therapists, ANLP, etc. I belong to several graduate groups as well, and some professional organizations. And, oh yes, to the Society of Neuro-Semantics. These are associations of people united by a common paradigm, model, etc. Sometimes it is a single charismatic leader who unites a group, sometimes an idea, sometimes a common experience (having been in a school, training program), and sometimes an idea and model.

Usually it is the intellectual, personal, and moral authority of individuals who commonly recognize the person or model that collectively gives the organization the "power" to certify. Ultimate, the power of any organization to certify is the power of that organization to function in an effective, compelling, believable way. This holds true for governments. When the leaders of a government, the ideas of a government, the lifestyle, economic base, etc. of a government no longer coheres, that government ends. It is in this way that the Berlin Wall fell, the Soviet Union ended, etc.

Ultimately, a certification is only as good as the people who stand behind it and the ideas, vision, and community they create to uphold it. That's why we care about standards that reflect and manifest the Vision that we have. That's why, in Neuro-Semantics, we have been putting our focus on the qualities and facets of personality, on cooperation, competency, abundance, professional respect, etc. Having seen the legacy mess of the NLP throughout the world, not only the public law suits, but even more important, the nasty personal attacks, insults, ego-driven competition, refusal to acknowledge each other, and abuse of the power of the model we are crystal clear that we do not want to make those mistakes.

The original Neuro-Semantics team of myself, Bob and Keith have committed ourselves to first and foremost be persons of our word, cooperative, honorable in our intentions and agenda, competence in our skills, and congruent. We know that if we don't walk our talk, then kiss it goodbye. As others have become a part of the growing Neuro-Semantics movement, this has been the very Vision that has drawn them. They want to be a part of a community that cares about manifesting its model in its behavior. They know that whatever "authority" we have to speak, to certify, to develop new patterns and techniques, depends upon how we first "author" our lives.

The legal aspect of any certification in any particular name or term depends, of course, on which government grants the trademark and the specific laws in that nation about trademarks. In the USA, nobody owns a trademark on NLP. I'm told that Richard Bandler owns (or did own) a trademark on the insignia of "The Society of NLP." I know the person who owns the Trademark for "The Society of NLP" in the UK and it is not Bandler.

Modeling Culture / Creating Culture

There's numerous reasons why several of us in Neuro-Semantics have moved into sociology (social psychology) to model cultures and to identify the meta-frames (memes, if you will) of a society. We want to do it to apply the NLP and NS models to modeling the most efficient and effective form of associating. And we're doing that in order to create a legacy that we can all be proud of. I've been studying multiple social models for how to develop and create the kind of culture that will support the spread and validity of the NS movement.

If we can and do call personal and subjective realities into being by our words and actions, by the frames we set and the "reality" strategies we apply to things, this happens even more so when groups of people do it. Culturally, a collective consciousness arises as people associate for higher purposes to achieve some outcome. Then, a thing "is" or becomes real to us as we declare it real. In the construction of social realities, we designate functions and status and function-statuses via our declarative words and rituals. It's in this way that we develop a culture from our community.


What does all this leave us? It highlights that the concept of "Ownership" has numerous meanings.

1) It can mean control over a term or phrase (a Trademark) and the power to do business under that trade or service mark. Those who own such a trademark can assert that right. Currently, in the USA and UK no individual so "owns" the term NLP.

2) It can refer to owning an idea, concept, model in the sense of truly owning it personally in ones minds and emotions. In this sense, NLP is truly free to be owned by whoever wants it and is willing to engage in the adventure of learning and incorporating it.

3) It can refer to an association, community, society, or group of people united around a common idea, purpose, vision, person, etc. In this sense, lots of groups and associations "own" the right to certify in NLP in many countries around the world. In this sense also there is no International body that has exclusive rights over NLP. It is free to any and every association who wants to do business, who has the personal and/or moral authority to do so, who can sell, influence, and persuade others, and who has taken whatever legal steps necessary.

The Bottom Line?

No one owns NLP. It's been turned loose in the world. Those who certify in the name of NLP do so because they are recognized by a sufficient number of people to do so. In a few countries around the world, there are people who own a trademark for NLP. In those countries, those people have the legal right to do business under the banner of "NLP." But that certainly doesn't stop or prohibit the model developed by Bandler and Grinder, Dilts and Gorden, Leslie Bandler and Judith DeLozier and all of the other contributors from being taught throughout the world.

What we're doing in Neuro-Semantics is forging a new path for community, culture, and legacy. We have taken the necessary legal actions necessary to Trademark it in the USA, many of our associates have applied for trademark in various other countries. Yet that isn't the key the key lies in the kind of people we are, the kind of people we are together, the kind and quality of community we're creating, the vision that directs and guides us as a self-organizing attractor, and the personal authority that we're developing in walking our talk.

May you find yourself truly owning the power and magic in NLP and NS so that it transforms you day by day, bringing out your best, touching you with magic, and positively touching the lives of those you meet.

Special Note added February 6, 2001:  

Apparently the legal battles are not over, word has it that Bandler has appealed the $600,000 judgment for Chris Hall.  And so the drama continues. 


1. From the United States Library of Congress, Copyright Office, Washington DC

What is not Protected by Copyright?

What Works are Protected:

Copyright protection exists for "original works of authorship" when they becomes fixed in a tangible form of expression.

From the U.S. Department of Commerce: Patent and Trademark Office

What is a trademark? It is a word, phrase, symbol, or design, or combination of words, phrases, symbols or designs, which identifies and distinguishes the source of the goods or services... There are two related but distinct types of rights in a mark: the right to register and the right to use.

2. If you go to the Web Site of ANLP, you might want to click on the page that has a graphic file of the court document. You will find this document at:  http://www.anlp.org/imagepage1.htm. While this page is difficult to read, it does raises questions about what's happening in the UK and whether Bandler, McKenna, Breen and others are seeking to "own" NLP, if they are trying to shut down others, or what's going on. Personally, I don't have a clue (just lots of guesses). 

Because the future of NLP affects us all, I'd recommend that you inquire about this at the alt.psychology.nlp newsgroup for an NLP discussion group where these matters are openly discussed among NLPers from all around the world. And simply raise these and other questions that you have about it. There's nothing like an open public forum to keep things on the up and up and for a community to police itself.


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