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Sky v Skype Trademark Battle

We haven’t done a “Fun with Words” article in a few weeks, and luckily the General Court of the European Union was happy to step in with an example just dripping with Human Factors. And special thanks to our friends over at This Old Marketing podcast who tipped me on to the story.

The story is about trademarks. Trademarks are a fantastic domain for applying human factors because the main purpose is to prevent users from getting confused between companies’ products, brands, advertising, slogans, logos, and other bits of content that they plan to use to establish their identity. So you can have an Apple Computer Company and an Apple Pie Company because not too many people are going to think that Steve Jobs expanded into apple pie (or that your apple pie company started making iPhones). But when Apple launched the iPod and iTunes, they ran into trouble with Apple Records, which had already trademarked the word “Apple” in the music domain.

Pretty easy so far. But it gets harder when you have close calls. And this new case in Europe is one of those. The case is a dispute between the broadcaster SKY and the video chat software SKYPE (owned by Microsoft).

    Here is just a short list of the issues:

  • The broadcasting and Internet communications domains have merged pretty tightly so that it is hard to know where one starts and other ends (if they do at all).
  • SKY has the trademark for the word SKY in the broadcasting domain
  • All of the letters in SKY constitute the beginning and most the total of the name SKYPE
  • SKYPE’s logo looks sort of like a cloud, which are usually found in the SKY.
  • So users might think SKYPE is part of or related to SKY.

The EU Court decided that SKYPE could not trademark its name in the EU. Skype doesn’t have to change its name, it just can’t protect it against other users. Only SKY can do that. And in fact, SKY can try to extract licensing fees from SKYPE to use the name they have, but that would require another (lengthy) court battle.

So think about this as a Human Factors practitioner and put on your cognitive walkthrough hat. Do you think if a longtime user of SKY in Europe saw SKYPE with its cloud logo for the first time that they would think that it was somehow related to SKY?

This is just going to get worse as celebrities realize that the only way they are going to make any money (since piracy of digital goods is so rampant) is to sell hard goods. Taylor Swift trademarked dozens of phrases from her music for use on t-shirts, placemats, and even curtains. Arms race ready to sue. Kind of similar to patent trolling if you ask me.

I have an even funnier one in hand for later. Look for something about noodles in a future post.

Image Credit: Microsoft Corporation

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