What's in a name? For a small Chicago area start-up, possibly an awful lot of money.
Social networking giant Facebook is suing Teachbook, an online community for teachers, claiming that the site "willfully and deliberately" infringes its brand. For this, Facebook wants "three times the amount of its actual damages and the attorneys' fees and costs incurred in this action," the company said in a filing in U.S. District Court in San Jose. And of course, for Teachbook to stop using the name.
Lawyers for Facebook said Teachbook "rides on the coattails of the fame and enormous goodwill of the Facebook trademark." Facebook, which has more than 500 million users and is valued at more than $33 billion, says that the "book" part of its name is "highly distinctive in the context of online communities and networking websites."
Teachbook has two employees, fewer than 30 users, and is yet to launch officially.
"We've been sitting here scratching our heads for the last couple of days," Teachbook's managing director, Greg Shrader, told the Los Angeles Times. "We're trying to understand how Facebook, a multibillion-dollar company, feels this small enterprise in Chicago is any type of threat."
Facebook argued in its trademark infringement filing: "If others could freely use 'generic plus BOOK' marks for online networking services targeted to that particular generic category of individuals, the suffix BOOK could become a generic term for 'online community/networking services' or 'social networking services. That would dilute the distinctiveness of the Facebook Marks."
Shrader said the term "book" is an obvious choice for his site, since it relates to teachers and education.
Teachbook filed a trademark application in March 2009, and Facebook opposed the registration last year. There were "ongoing discussions" over use of the name, Shrader told the Los Angeles Times, and he believed that "we were working constructively" with Facebook. Shrader has vowed to fight back in court.
Facebook earlier this month demanded that a travel site called Tracebook change its name. The site is now called TripTrace. It has also prevailed against sites called Doctorbook and Vetbook.
Barry Schnitt, a Facebook spokesman, told Wired.com that "there is already a well known online network of people with 'book' in the brand name. Of course the Teachbook folks are free to create an online network for teachers or whomever, and we wish them well in that endeavor."
He added: "What they are not free to do is trade on our name or dilute our brand while doing so."
Teachbook as a social networking site actually has been around – though not in its current form -- since 2007, aka before Facebook was ubiquitous.
Edward Domain, the founder of upstart tech news site Flyover Geeks, says he started a social networking site called Teachbook (along with a military one called TroopSpace) in the Bay Area in 2007, but it languished with some 50 or 60 members in the dotcom crash era.
"I received an anonymous offer from a third party to buy the site on behalf of what turned out to be the current owners of Teachbook. I jumped at the chance as I really never had the time to put into growing the site and my investment capital, once so close to being a done deal I could smell it, was now gone," Domain blogged.
Of Teachbook's current woes he wrote: 'There but for the Grace of God go I."