In announcing the newly created parent company that will encompass Google’s cash cow search business and several other Google holdings, Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin may have stepped into a trademark infringement situation. On Monday, Google announced its corporate restructuring, calling the new parent company, “Alphabet.” However, a vehicle leasing and fleet management company owned by BMW is also named Alphabet, and it owns the domain name www.alphabet.com. BMW spokeswoman Micaela Sandstede stated that the website is a “very active” part of Alphabet’s business and that BMW is not planning on selling the domain or the trademark.
In addition to the issues raised by BMW, an Israeli firm specializing in design and architecture also expressed concern with Google’s choice of name for its parent company. Alefbet Planners Ltd. claims that the name chosen by Google has been used by Alefbet for the past 25 years and is known to its international customer base as “Alphabet.” The company’s officials stated that, “[They] plan to call the heads of Google and ask them to choose another name that is not already taken.”
Trademark infringement occurs when a person or entity partakes in an unauthorized use of a trademark or service mark (or a substantially similar mark) on related, similar or competing goods and services. Infringement lawsuits are successful when the plaintiff can show that the defendant’s use of the mark causes a likelihood of confusion in the average consumer of the origin or source of the goods. As laid out in Interpace Corp. v Lapp, Inc., 721 F.2d 460 (3d Cir. 1983), factors relevant to a determination of likelihood of confusion include: the strength of the trademark owner’s mark; the degree of similarity between the trademark owner’s mark and the allegedly infringing mark; evidence of actual consumer confusion; the marketing channels used; the type of goods involved and the degree of care likely to be exercised by the purchaser; the alleged infringer’s intent in selecting the mark; and other facts showing that the consuming public is likely to expect the trademark owner to manufacture a product in the alleged infringer’s market, or is likely to expand into that market.
In their defense, Page and Brin claim that their Alphabet company will not make products or brands that will confuse consumers. Page stated in the announcement that, “We are not intending for this to be a big consumer brand with related products – the whole point is that Alphabet companies should have independence and develop their own brands.”
This all sounds well and good, except with respect to Google’s automobile division. Currently, Google offers a version of the Android operating system that has applications for use in vehicles. Google has also conducted comprehensive research on self-driving vehicles. It is with respect to this area that consumers could be confused by Google’s Alphabet and BMW’s Alphabet. With respect to Alefbet, it remains to be seen if Google’s use of Alphabet will create confusion.
In the case at hand, BMW stated it is currently examining whether any trademark infringement has occurred.