Google may have opened a big can of worms, restructuring under the innocuous-sounding name ‘Alphabet.’ So if that sounds like a great idea for your own company, you might consider something a little less obvious.
On Monday, the search giant founded by Sergey Brin and Larry Page said it’s reorganizing, creating a holding company with that name to give more clarity to its various product lines. In addition to search, it’s a big force in Internet advertising, mapping services, retail sales and delivery, not to mention its ownership of YouTube, and its operating system Android, as well as the popular Web browser Chrome.
“For Sergey and me this is a very exciting new chapter in the life of Google--the birth of Alphabet,” Google chief executive Larry Page wrote in a blog post on Monday. “We liked the name Alphabet because it means a collection of letters that represent language, one of humanity's most important innovations, and is the core of how we index with Google search!”
But hundreds of businesses in the U.S. already use “Alphabet,” or one of its many variants as a trademark, so it’s possible the lawsuits are just about to begin. (One immediate flashpoint could be with the automaker BMW, which similaly has a divsion called Alphabet.)
Google has not filed for a trademark using its new handle, for which the United States Patent Office currently lists more than 400 matches, says Marsha Gentner, senior counsel and a trademark attorney at Dykema, a law firm in Washington, D.C.
And it’s likely to use the name only in broad terms, mostly as a corporate moniker, she says.
Still, other companies with a pre-existing claim to the name could potentially seek a quick payout, particularly if they operate in one of the many industries that Google now occupies. And when push comes to shove, Google could get litigious too.
“Google is smart enough to know what they’re doing based on trademark law,” says Rudy Telscher, an intellectual property attorney at Harness Dickey, who adds that it's possible a company in a similar industry with a similar name could have a prior claim to the trademark.
In that case, “Google could buy them and generally do what Google does,” Telscher says.
There are four types of trademarks. The strongest types are either arbitrary or fanciful names. Google is actually an example of such a mark. The next type is suggestive, and creates an association with your brand, Telscher says. One example of that is the bus company Greyhound. The two weakest forms of trademark are descriptive names, or generic names, for example “candy” or “soda”, when your product is actually those things. At best, Alphabet is a suggestive name, potentially describing the variety of products and services that Google offers, Telscher says.
And that’s good enough for Linda Heidinger, owner and founder of New York City’s much-loved Alphabets, the tiny retailer that started out 30 years ago in the Alphabet City neighborhood of Manhattan. The store sells quirky, hard-to-find items like toys popular in the 1950s, such as Slinkys and Etch-o-Sketches.
“When people hear ‘Alphabet,’ they think of us,” Heidinger says, adding that for now the search engine giant’s name change has only brought heightened attention to her business. “People will be talking to us about it as they come to the store.”
She’s more concerned about the skyrocketing cost of rents in the city, which have risen 200 percent in the past three years, and where a modest storefront like hers can go for as much as $17,000 per month. City prices have forced her to close four stores in recent years, and last month she moved her remaining store to cheaper digs further down Avenue A in the East Village.
Still, she’s about to begin focusing on an online retail strategy, which could theoretically put her into conflict with Google, which also facilitates retail product sales online.
“If we had a big online presence, it might be different,” Heidinger says.