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Sunday, 20 May 2012

Shall We Thuuz Today? Only the Trade Mark Knows For Sure

One of my podcast staples is the hour-long lecture as part of the DFJ Entrepreneurial Thought Leaders Seminar here, under the auspices of Stanford University and the Stanford Technology Ventures Program here. Each week (well, weekly as long as classes are in session at Stanford) the Seminar brings a speaker of note with some connection to innovation and entrepreneurship. In addition to trying to get an ongoing feel for the culture and narrative from "entrepreneurship ground zero", this Kat listens to the broadcasts with a particularly idiosyncratic content fetish -- he pounces on every mention of IP. Despite the techie focus of most of the lectures (the Seminar is hosted by the Stanford Engineering Department), and the emphasis on how to turn monetize innovation, this Kat is continually surprised by the paucity of mention of IP topics. Rare indeed is a discussion on trade marks.

I was intrigued, therefore, by the brief Q&A exchange that took place between a lecturer, Warren Packard, a successful VC type in Silicon Valley, and a student in connection with Mr. Packard's 8 February address to the seminar. Mr Packard is currently the CEO of a start-up company named Thuuz, here. The company is described on their website as "revolutionizing sports entertainment" as follows:

"Thuuz alerts you to the most exciting sporting events as they're happening, so you never miss the action. We'll even tell you where to tune into these games, whether you're in front of your TV, computer, mobile phone or tablet. How does it work? Analyzing hundreds of factors, Thuuz rates the excitement of all live games on a scale of 0-100 so you can see which games are trending as most exciting. You can also find exciting games by seeing what your friends are watching. We'll even alert you when games reach a certain excitement level or when friends share games."
I suspect that the Thuuz algorithm worked overtime for a few minutes last week at the conclusion of the Manchester City v Queens Park Rangers English Premier League match. Indeed, it would be interesting to compare my sense of "exciting" with the scaled value generated by the Thuuz algorithm. In any event, in listening to Mr Packard's lecture, I was struck that IP was not mentioned, his two main themes being that: (i) the world of entrepreneurship is better characterized by the uncertainty of statistics than the certainty of calculus; and (ii) at least at the outset, staffing is the most important variable.

But what about the company's underlying technology, I wondered. Not unlike most of the lectures in this series, there was far less mention of the technology per se and no mention of how the company seeks to protect it. The closest the lecture got to addressing IP was a brief mention of the company's interest in reaching agreement to obtain more non-U.S. sports contents, e.g., the Indian cricket league.

"Well, there is one last IP chance", this Kat said to himself, as the Q&A begun. "Certainly there must be at least one member of the audience who is curious how the company views and protects its IP." I was right, but in an totally unpredictable way. The first question was straight out: how did the company choose its name (Thuuz)? Nothing about its algorithm or related technology, or about the challenges of copyright and broadcasting right clearance, but rather the simple question of how the company's name was chosen. The response by Mr. Packer was, as I recall, short and to the effect that the word, with a double "u", was available and that the mark suggests the word "enthusiasm.". Whether he meant the domain name or the trade mark is not clear; I assume the former, although I note that the company has also registered the mark THUUZ. Answer given and with no follow-up to it, the Q&A went on to consider other issues, none of which was connected with IP.

All of this reminded me once again that, more often than not, IP protection is a secondary concern in the world of entrepreneurs, whereby it is taken for granted that adequate IP protection will somehow be found. That said, the name THUUZ was seen sufficiently creative that it merited a question from the audience and that the selection of the mark was "successful". This further points to the conclusion that the decision to adopt the THUUZ trade mark was a reasoned one. As such, this albeit brief focus on trade marks in connection with the broadcast is interesting. As we discussed previously in our blogpost of 25 March here), surveys show that businesses value value trade marks more than they do all other IP rights. This brief exchange regarding the THUUZ mark suggests that there may be more of a role in providing trade mark advice to entrepreneurial ventures than we sometimes think.

1 comment:

Rob Harrison said...

Neil's assumption that Thuuz checked that the domain name was clear, but not necessarily the trade mark is a common issue. The average founder is nowadays very capable of checking to see whether a domain name is available, and often makes the assumption that he has got a valid right and can use the name. In probably 99% of cases, the assumption is valid.

It's the same issue that has been faced for years when setting up companies. Many founders assume that the company name is the same as registration of the trade mark. Whilst UK companies house has become better at pointing out the difference, that's not true in other countries.

Part of the issue is the ease in checking domain names and company names. There are registers in which these names are easily accessible for no or little cost through the Internet. Searching trade marks is still a bit of an art. OHIM's new TMView service is a massive improvement over some of the national database interface. It's a shame that it still does not include Germany (but that is apparently changing later this year). Searching the US Federal and State registers can also be a nightmare unless a commercial database is interrogated.

It is clear that there is a need to provide advice on trade marks to entrepreneurial ventures. The reality is that many of the companies cannot afford to pay for a comprehensive search and need to be able to do their first clearances through easy-to-use databases. The opportunity arrives at the point in which those searches fail - or the cease and desist letter arrives.

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