RealTime IT News

Of Boobles, Froogles and Googles

No one denies that Google is a world-class brand. The search leader's impending IPO has juiced up Wall Street, while its recently released financials generated awe. Much has been made of the company's S-1 manifesto proclaiming that Google does not plan to become a conventional company.

"Our goal is to develop services that significantly improve the lives of as many people as possible," reads the open letter from founders Sergey Brin and Larry Page. "In pursuing this goal, we may do things that we believe have a positive impact on the world, even if the near term financial returns are not obvious."

That sounds bogus to Steven Esrig, CEO of Googles, a kid-friendly Web site.

On July 6, Stelor Productions, which licenses the Googles trademark and operates the site, filed two briefs opposing Google's trademark registration with the United States Patent and Trademark Office. The brief reminds the board that it's held the Googles trademark for children's books since 1994, and applied to extend that to computer services including e-mail, online bulletin boards and general kid-friendly information.

Google's name has generated confusion, Esrig contends. "We get thousands and thousands and thousands of e-mails," said Esrig. Many of them are from parents upset that their children used Google instead of Googles and ended up on a violent or inappropriate site. There are also those who come to Googles hoping to find general search information. Esrig said his company had to put up a filter page to make sure that site visitors were looking for Googles.

But it was Google's application to register the trademark for Google-branded products -- from flashlights to license plate frames to tote bag, t-shirts and plastic exercise balls sold online -- that got Esrig's gorge up.

Stelor has been in negotiations with major vendors to offer branded kids' merchandise, he said. "We were ready to burst forth on the scene," he said. "But there has been so much publicity about the IPO, people are wondering, are we them?"

Esrig finds Google's unwillingness to talk perplexing, in light of the supposed idealism of that company's founders. "How many times have you heard these guys say they don't want to do any evil, they're going to change the world?" he asked "We're here to give kids messages about self-esteem, self-worth and the environment. That's what we're all about. The fact that they haven't deigned to speak to us all these years, it's very different from the image they put out."

Now, Esrig said, all he wants is for Google to stay out of Googles' turf. "We wish them every success in the world," he said. "I think there's plenty of space in the Internet universe. But we were in the children's' market first, and we want them out of it."

Stelor has asked the USPTO to cancel Google's trademark; he's received notice that Google was served, but -- still -- no word from Google.

Maybe that's because Google's lawyers were too busy bullying Booble, a directory of x-rated Web sites and merchandise that plays off the search leader's minimalist graphic style as well as its name.

According to a Booble spokesperson, Google's lawyers went on the attack just twenty-four hours after its January 2004 launch. The Google Trademark Enforcement Team e-mailed the company asking it to take down its site.

Bob, Booble's anonymous creator who declines to give a last name, claims that his site is a parody and therefore protected by free speech laws. Google disagrees.

An e-mail purportedly from Google's Trademark Enforcement Team posted on the Booble site reads, in part, "Your use of the Domain Name and corresponding web site constitutes trademark infringement and dilution of Google's trademarks and unfair competition under federal and state laws. Further, your improper duplication of Google's trade dress on the web site will mislead consumers into believing that some association exists between Google and you, which tarnishes the goodwill and reputation of Google's services and trademarks."

The e-mail demands that Booble take down its site, transfer the domain name to Google and permanently refrain from using any other confusing version of the name or Google's trade dress.

Via e-mail, Bob told internetnews.com, "We have been engaged in a constructive dialog with Google through our attorney that has gradually been bringing us toward a mutually satisfactory solution. In short, if [we] drop our parody of Google, they will drop their objections to our Web site."

A Google spokesperson declined to comment, due to the pending litigation.

And then, there's Froogles. Richard Wolfe of Holtsville, N.Y., registered the domain name for his shopping site in December 2000. He never heard a peep from Google, even after the search site went live with its Froogle comparison-shopping service in December 2002, according to Wolfe's attorney, Stephen Humphrey, a partner in the law firm of Cameron & Hornbostel in Washington, D.C.

When Google's application for a trademark on Froogle published in March 2004, Wolfe filed an opposition. That's when Google's lawyers contacted Humphrey, saying they wouldn't complain about his operation of froogles.com if Wolfe would withdraw his opposition. Humphrey and Wolfe said no deal.

"Considering how big Google is and how aggressively they are promoting the connection between Google and and Froogle and shopping," Humphrey said, "it's not going to take long for people to see Richard Wolfe as the copy cat. What good is it for them to tell Richard that if he'll leave them alone, they'll leave him to operate? It's going to be downhill for him."

In June 2004, after the Froogles team rejected Google's offer, according to Humphrey, Google filed a complaint with ICANN's National Arbitration Forum, the group that handles domain name disputes and cybersquatting complaints. Google argued that Froogles.com was too close to its trademark "Google." ICANN denied the claim.

Humphrey says that Google initiated the ICANN proceeding in an attempt to bully Richard Wolfe into abandoning his opposition to its Froogle application in the trademark office. "Here is a domain name holder who registered this domain name four years ago, having never heard anything from Google until he opposed Google's application to register Froogle," he said.

Humphrey won't disclose his client's plans, but he did say, "Google is knowingly and intentionally infringing Richard Wolfe's trademark rights in the mark Froogles by continuing to operate its shopping service under the name Froogle. Their right to use Froogle is very seriously in question."

It's easy to think that these little companies are going after Google to get a slice of as much as $3.3 billion to be raised in its IPO. While the timing of these cases is, well, interesting, each is the result of events that took place before Google announced its plans; Froogles and Googles have operated for years. As Googles' Esrig said, "We've been trying to have a dialog with them for close to six years. We've written them and called them, and they've just ignored us."

Well, not any more.