RealTime IT News

AOL Sues Chat Software Provider Tribal Voice

America Online Inc. is suing instant messaging provider Tribal Voice over its use of the term 'buddy list,' used in conjunction with the company's instant-chat software PowWow.

AOL filed the complaint against Scotts Valley-Calif.-based Tribal Voice earlier this month in U.S. District Court in northern California. AOL claims Tribal Voice's use of 'buddy list,' is a trademark and intellectual property infringement. AOL is seeking unspecified damages and is asking that Tribal Voice cease from using the 'buddy list' label.

Tribal Voice said in a statement released Monday that 'buddy list' is a common Internet communications term and characterizes the suit as a 'Goliath' 'attacking a small, private technology innovator.' Tribal Voice was founded in 1994 by anti-virus software legend John McAfee.

Last year AOL filed a similar suit against AT&T, over its WorldNet Service's usage of the phrases "you've got mail," "buddy list," and "IM," short for instant messaging.

In late December, 1998, Virginia federal Chief Judge Claude Hilton ruled against AOL, and said that the disputed terms were probably generic. AT&T had argued that AOL was attempting to assert ownership of common terms already in the public domain and in use throughout the Internet.

AOL had filed for a temporary restraining order and preliminary injunction; the requests were denied, and AOL's case is still pending.

Under a December 1998 agreement with Tribal Voice, AT&T's WorldNet Service uses PowWow technology for its "I M Here" instant messaging and buddy list feature. The company has also signed up several, smaller ISPs and positions itself as the leading alternative to AOL and ICQ, especially to companies who don't want to align with the country's largest ISP.

Tribal Voice maintains that its unfair for the behemoth to attack the fledgling company.

"It is gratuitous for AOL to attack us when they are already suing AT&T over this same matter," said Joseph Esposito, Tribal voice president and CEO.

"This issue will be resolved between industry giants; there is absolutely no reason to involve a small company such as Tribal Voice."

"Just because AOL wants to own all facets of Internet communications doesn't warrant using an intellectual property lawsuit as a means of attack an online communications service," Esposito said.

AOL spokesman Jim Whitney said that 'buddy list' is a federally listed trademark.

"Tribal Voice and AT&T are the only other companies we're aware of using buddy list," said Whitney.

"It's incumbent upon the party who has the trademark to defend it. When we see a trademark infringement we move quickly to take action," Whitney said.

Tribal Voice is also asking its users to e-mail objections to the lawsuit to AOL chairman and CEO Steve Case with a form letter stating in part, "What's in a name? 'Buddy list' is a term everybody uses in conjunction with a whole range of products. Tribal Voice has been providing wonderful services for years. Please don't use your corporate muscle and the courts to try and take this service away from me. AOL is another great service. Please don't ruin your name by dragging others through the muck."