Google and the Giant Robotic Flyswatter
If there's one fact of life for large companies, it's that small companies and individuals are going to sue to try to get a piece of your much bigger pie. As corporate pies come, Google has a pretty big one, and they've had no shortage of suits over the years from those looking to get their knife in the company's pie-pan. Such is the case again, as according to reports the search giant has been served with a lawsuit over its use of the name "Android" for its popular mobile phone platform.
Android Data Corporation and its ringmaster Erich Specht are the holders of a U.S. Patent & Trademark Office-registered trademark on the name "Android Data." The mark was applied for in 2000, and issued in 2002. In 2007, Google applied for a trademark on the name "Android" for its mobile operating system, was denied the mark because the PTO felt it was too close to Mr. Specht's mark, appealed, and lost on appeal. Nothing too unusual — companies file for trademarks all the time, and the Patent & Trademark Office is somewhat known for being fond of the big red stamp.
Where things take an interesting turn is with the lawsuit filed by Mr. Specht alleging that Google is violating his trademark, and has been doing so for the better part of two years — a questionable time period Mr. Specht says he waited because he thought Google's Android was a device, not an operating system. His attorney, Martin Murphy, says Specht feels Google is taking Android away from him, after he "put a lot of thought into that name." He admits that anyone with any sense can tell the difference between something that powers a mobile phone, made by a household name and e-commerce software made by a company nobody's ever heard of but says it makes Android Data appear to be copying Google, and that's hurting its business. One is left to wonder what is really hurting that business, given that Mr. Murphy's client, who is supposedly capable of creating an e-commerce package, needs two years to work out the difference between an operating system and a telephone.
Speaking of Mr. Specht's business, it's history is as spotty as the logic behind his lawsuit. Android Data Corporation is an Illinois corporation, but according to reports, it was voluntarily dissolved in 2004 only to be resurrected later on. The company's website — something one might expect a company selling e-commerce software to put a little attention into — was lost to a link farm and only recently was itself resurrected just days before the lawsuit was filed, and now serves a parked page filled with ads for, you guessed it, cell phones. Perhaps someone should fill the dynamic duo in on the business secret that not having a website for your web-based product might be hurting your business a tad bit more than a completely unrelated mobile phone OS.
Google, for its part, isn't sweating the suit in the least. A company spokesman gave the standard Google-as-Defendant response: "We believe the complaint has no merit. We plan to defend against them vigorously." We assume the other forty-five defendants will too — that's right, Specht didn't just sue Google, he sued T-Mobile, HTC, and every member of the Open Handset Alliance, including Motorola, Sprint, Samsung, Toshiba, Vodafone, and Texas Instruments, and wants each one of them to cough up a cool $2 million. Murphy says he'll be filing for a temporary restraining order on Specht's behalf, asking that the defendants be permanently barred from marketing Android products and forcing them to withdraw existing products from the market in order to be re-branded. Of course, the idea that a federal judge would agree to such a farce — causing an untold number of companies harm that we suspect would total over the billion dollar mark — is ludicrous and is even less likely to happen than Specht winning the case.
Of note in the matter, and the sort of technicalities that courts eat for breakfast, is that Specht's mark is "Android Data," not "Android." There are reportedly dozens of other Android trademarks, all of which are sufficiently distinct from Specht's mark as to allow them a mark of their own. Google had to expect likewise — a search of existing marks is Law School 101, so Google's legal team had to be operating under the expectation that a mobile operating system would be judged sufficiently distinct from e-commerce software. Murphy argues that, because the PTO noted that nobody could have a trademark on the word "data" itself when approving Specht's trademark, that his trademark is really for "Android" not "Android Data" — the word "Data" just falls away in his happy little world.
A few things to consider, however, about Mr. Specht and his mark may well make his case a lot harder to win. First, trademarks are not like copyrights — one can hold copyright to a work and lock it away, never to be seen again without doing any damage to the validity of that copyright. Not so for trademarks, which must be actively used in commerce in order to remain valid. Unless Mr. Specht can come up with some proof he's been doing something — and right now, that's the $94,000,000 question — he stands to have his trademark — and, if Google is on their game, his financial future — flushed down the toilet.
Second, the paperwork involved with a trademark doesn't end with issuance; trademark holders are required to file an "affidavit of use" between the fifth and sixth year after the trademark's issuance, and a renewal application within the year before the trademark expires, if they wish to renew it. By our calculations, that affidavit would have been due between 2007 and 2008, with a six-month grace period after the end of the sixth year. By any accounting the sixth year is up, but depending on when in 2002 the application was granted, the six-month grace period may be up as well — meaning that if Mr. Specht was as thorough about his PTO filings as he was about those for his website and the Illinois Secretary of State, his trademark may well have already gone circling the plumbing.
In the end, what Specht really wants is a settlement and, more than likely, a flat-out purchase of the trademark by Google for an exorbitant sum. Indeed, Murphy even went so far as to admit it flat out to Forbes: "No judge will want to be flooded with that much paperwork. We'll probably be asked to sit down and work this out." Sorry to be the bearer of bad news, Marty, but judges are responsible for judgments, not settlements — if Google doesn't want to play ball, the judge and everyone else will drown in a sea of paperwork a thousand times over. Were we Google, that's exactly what we'd do — bury Specht & Co. in wave after wave of interrogatories and subpoenas ducas tecum, months of depositions, and enough motions to make a Supreme Court clerk cry. The phrase "flesh eating lawyers" has meaning for good reason, and if anybody has them, Google does.
At the end, we predict one of two outcomes: Either the judge laughs the whole matter out the door before Specht can get a "but I put so much thought into it" out, or Google flexes its barristers, scares the daylights out of Martin Murphy, and gives Specht just enough to go away and never think of trademark trolling again.