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.

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