July 7, 2004 8:01 AM PDT
In name dispute, it's Googles vs. Google
Stelor Productions, the company that owns and operates Googles.com, said Wednesday it has initiated trademark proceedings with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office against Google. The complaint is based on Stelor's belief that the search engine has begun infringing on its brand name.
The company said it filed two separate actions, asserting that Google has overstepped its rights to market goods and services aimed at children, based on Stelor's own trademark rights on the Googles.com name.
Googles.com, which centers on a group of friendly, four-eyed alien characters, came online in 1997. It sells children's goods ranging from toys to clothing and also serves as an entertainment site offering e-mail, an online diary, and other Web community features aimed at children ages 2 to 10. Darnestown, Md.-based Stelor acquired the rights to market the so-called "Googles from Goo" alien characters in 2002 from their original creator, who trademarked the name in 1997 for use with toys, clothes, online services and other media.
In comparison, Google the search engine was not officially incorporated as a company until 1998, though Backrub, a precursor to the current search engine, came online in 1997. The company registered for its trademark in 1998 but was only approved by the Patent and Trademark Office as an officially registered trademark in January 2004.
Google representatives declined to comment on the Googles.com trademark filings. However, the company has become increasingly territorial of its brand name as its own clout has increased. In January, Google sought to shutter an adult-oriented search engine calling itself "Booble," on the grounds that the site mimics the search giant's name, appearance and brand. Booble, which is owned by Guywire, continues to operate under its operator's defense that the site is actually a legally permissible parody of Google.
Stelor Chief Executive Steven Esrig maintains that there is room for both companies to continue to operate successfully online, but he said that consumers will become increasingly confused if Google continues to build its business in the children's toy, clothing and book sector. Google does not market children's goods directly, but the search company's Froogle comparison shopping site offers links to sites selling many of the same kinds of products as those offered by Googles.com.
"The confusion of the names is crippling my business, and Google has refused to sit down and talk with us about the problem," Esrig said. "Google's founders always talk about doing things the right way. But we're the senior trademark, and it's been surprising that they've been so disrespectful."
The executive said he wants Google to enter a partnership with Stelor, in which the search engine would point people seeking children's products to the Googles.com site.
Esrig added that he has bigger goals for the Googles brand, including licensing its characters for other forms of children's entertainment media, specifically television. The executive asserts that the confusion over Google, in particular over the search company's proposed $2.7 billion initial public offering, has deterred Stelor's efforts to attract outside investors to back those plans.
Stelor recently launched several Googles-themed children's songs on Apple Computer's iTunes digital music service.
The battle with Google, Esrig said, represents the challenge that small companies face as the Internet makes household names out of companies nearly overnight.
"Legally, they have no right to be in the children's market, based on our properties," Esrig said. "This is why trademark laws were established: to help smaller companies like us that are in danger of being run over by larger companies like Google."
The trademark filing is not the only legal problem to surface recently for Google. Last week, Silicon Valley start-up Affinity Engines filed a lawsuit against the search company, claiming that a Google engineer stole software code to create Orkut.com, a popular social networking service.