As the excitement is starting to fade from Mark Zuckerberg's splash appearance at the f8 conference, Facebook Timeline is entering what's become a purgatory of sorts for new tech products: the land of trademark disputes. Lots of people love the look--"a scrapbook on steroids"--but a scrappy startup from Chicago did not love the name. Timelines Inc. has been using the same one for five years and, believe it or not, offers a similar service for helping people map their memories. They've registered trademarks for "Timelines," "Timelines.com" and "Timelines and design." The company filed a trademark-infringement suit against Facebook on Thursday claiming that the social network's new Timeline feature will put them out of business.
This kind of thing seems to be happening more and more in the tech world. A big company like Facebook will launch a new product with a name that's already been used by a small startup. Depending on the situation, though, it's not necessarily a bad thing for the startup with the stolen name. When Google+ launched, the group messenging service was called Huddle, a name that a cloud collaboration startup with its own group messaging componetnt had also been around for five years. Following nearly three months of legal backing-and-forthing, Google decided to change the name, but not after Huddle went from being a little known company in London to the company with the jump on Google. The free press along the way certainly didn't hurt.
Though there are countless smaller examples of name conflicts, Apple is the king of trademark-infringement. Though they've been aggressive about pushing forward with their token iWhatever naming scheme, they seem to step on somebody's toes almost every time they come out with a new iDevice. This year has seen two major trademark-infringement cases. A small book publisher sued Apple over iBooks, a name he trademarked in 1999. It will take some time--many billable lawyer hours we're sure--to work out whether or not Apple will pull a Google and rename the app, but in the past, they've been happy to pay up. Fujitsu launched a claim against Apple in 2010 over use of the name "iPad," a trademark they had owned since 2003. A year later, Apple closed the case by buying the trademark from Fujitsu for an undisclosed amount.
Trademark-infringement lawsuits are not free for either side. Robyn Hatcher, a small business owner, wrote about her trademark headaches at Forbes last year. In her case, she got slapped with a trademark-infringement suit after unknowingly using a trademarked name for fifteen years. "Even if you wanted to fight it, you'd spend about five figures in legal fees with no guarantee of winning," one of her friends told her. Of course, she could have avoided the trouble of dealing with the lawsuit--as Facebook, Apple and Google could've done--by being a bit more diligent in the first place. "My research consisted of Googling the name and seeing what came up in the top searches." Hatcher says. "What came up were several companies that were completely different, so I considered myself safe." Facebook must have more sophisticated market research than that, right?
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.
We want to hear what you think about this article. Submit a letter to the editor or write to email@example.com.