On the face of it, Sky’s legal action against Skype, based on its claim to own the word ‘sky’, should qualify for bizarre business story of the week. Sky asserts that the name Skype is too close to its own and that the companies’ logos are too alike. It claims to have market research proving that customers are confused by the similarities between the brands and their logos.
I suppose it would be possible, if you went out of your way to find a group of very out-of-touch or very thick people, to produce survey results ‘proving’ that they couldn’t tell the difference between Sky and Skype, but surely anyone in the market for either company’s products would be a bit more savvy than that. It appears, however, that the EU ‘s trademark office has taken this outbreak of corporate dick-waving seriously and has ruled in Sky’s favour, for the time being at least. Ironic when you consider Rupert Murdoch’s hatred of the EU and all its evil works but that’s by-the-by.
There a wider issue here though – that of large corporations claiming exclusive rights to the use of common words. There have been a number of similar instances over the years. In the US, there have been legal battles over the words ‘politico’, ‘enterpreneur’ and ‘monster’. A few years ago in the UK there was the farcical attempt by KFC to stop the Tan Hill Inn using the words ‘family feast’ to describe one of its Christmas lunch options.
Like all good land-grabs, turning ordinary words into brands is a process by which the colonisers get what they want for free, then exploit it and exclude others from its use. Corporations will sue anyone who uses their brand name when, as often as not, they have nicked the name in the first place. While courts often uphold a company’s right to use a word as a brand name, you rarely hear of communities, tribes or nations successfully suing companies.
Take the Touareg from the Sahara Desert. They look as though they could do with a few extra quid. Did Volkswagen ask their permission when it slapped their name on its SUV? Does it pay them anything for the use of their name? I doubt it but you can bet that any other company coming up with a name even slightly similar would find itself receiving a cease and desist letter.
And then there’s Nike, a company not unfamiliar with using lawsuits to protect its brand. Nike didn’t invent the word Nike – it was the name of a Greek goddess. Now that’s an opportunity for the Greek government. Perhaps they should point out that Nike belonged to the Greeks for some 3,000 years before the sportswear company started using the name. A licensing agreement, whereby Nike pays a small sum to the Greek people for each item sold, should go some way towards paying off Greece’s enormous national debt.
For the time being, though, it seems that corporations can plant their flags in words and phrases as old as the hills, then claim exclusive rights to their use for commercial purposes. As things stand at the moment, until the European Court rules otherwise, BSkyB owns the word ‘sky’. Just don’t tell Patrick Moore.