Can A Company Own the Word “Book?” Vt. Startup at Odds With Facebook

Designbook’s pursuit of a trademark was met with objections from Facebook

Vermont’s governor has waded into a dispute between a small technology company in his state and the social media giant Facebook.

Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, sent a letter to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, asking Facebook to back off its objections over a trademark application from Designbook.

“I hope that he'll listen,” Shumlin said Wednesday. “How is it fair to claim you own the word ‘book?’”

Designbook, a Burlington startup, provides an online platform for entrepreneurs to describe their infant business, as they seek professional feedback, collaborators, and maybe even investors.

“That is not what Facebook does,” said Aaron Pollak, one of Designbook's founders.

Pollak, an engineer who has used what is known as a “design book” to jot down ideas or sketches for projects, said he received legal notice that Facebook objects to his company’s use of the suffix “book” in its name.

Facebook, as it has done in other cases involving the words “book” or “face” linked to technology or social media ventures, argued since both brands operate in the digital space, a consumer could get confused about whether the two are linked.

The Designbook team will have to spell out its differences from Facebook in legal filings if it's to pursue that trademark.

“The two businesses are completely divergent,” Pollak said. “It looks to be a relatively expensive process, and something we really shouldn't be focusing on. We should be focusing on materializing our business and supporting other entrepreneurs, not fighting frivolous battles.”

Attorney Jared Carter with the Vermont Community Law Center said it is the nature of trademarks to see holders aggressively seek to protect them.

“It's quite common,” Carter observed. “If Facebook or Nike, or some other major company, doesn't police—vigorously—its trademark, then there's a chance they can lose it.”

One high-profile example of a large company protecting its trademark came in 2013, when Vermont-based ice cream brand Ben & Jerry's successfully halted the release of X-rated movies that used ice cream-themed titles and logos on the porn packages that were very close to the dessert brand’s.

Carter said the filings back and forth between Facebook and Designbook could be a lengthy process, and could result in either some sort of agreement between the brands, or in litigation.

Shumlin said he hopes the tech firm will have a result similar to another small Vermont company, Eat More Kale. In 2011, the sandwich sellers at Chick-fil-A said the t-shirt slogan was too close to its “Eat Mor Chikin” campaign, which saw cows urging quick-serve restaurant customers to choose chicken over beef.

Eat More Kale eventually prevailed over Chick-fil-A, which failed to prove any risk to its brand through customer confusion or other factors.

“Designbook is a good company,” Shumlin said. “Let’s not underestimate the imagination of the American people.”

Here is the complete text of the letter Shumlin sent to Mark Zuckerberg, which Shumlin’s office provided to news outlets including necn:

Dear Mr. Zuckerberg,

I was very concerned to read about Facebook’s unnecessary bullying of a Vermont startup called Designbook. The Vermonters behind this company are the type of people that make me proud to be this state’s Governor. They are young, entrepreneurial, and innovative. Given your background, I am sure you can relate.

The last thing these Vermonters deserve is for a giant corporation to threaten them unnecessarily. We don’t stand for that type of injustice in Vermont. Just ask Chick-fil-A.

I’m sure that the enormous growth and worldwide success of Facebook insulates you from many of the decisions made within the organization. I sincerely hope that is the case here. And I hope you will step in to take action to right this wrong.

Peter Shumlin
Governor of Vermont

A Facebook spokesperson told necn that Facebook is aware of Gov. Shumlin’s letter to Mark Zuckerberg, but declined comment on the letter itself, or on the disagreement between Facebook and Designbook.

Nathaniel White-Joyal, a Designbook employee, said he and his six co-workers greatly appreciate Shumlin’s support. “We’re excited to have the governor on our side on this one,” White-Joyal told necn. “We want the same thing he does: to help make Burlington and the Burlington area the center for entrepreneurship for the state.”

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