Brand Infringement?

Stirring the Alphabet Soup

bmw alphabetklein PR Mirela M
Google's Alphabet surprised BMW.
  • Why it matters

    Why it matters

    Google might find companies legally challenging the name it has given to a new holding company, Alphabet, possibly costing it money.

  • Facts

    Facts

    • BMW’s car leasing and fleet management subsidiary has been named Alphabet since 1997.
    • The German carmaker is checking whether Google’s new holding name implications over trademark rights.
    • BMW’s subsidiary also owns the rights to the alphabet.com and alphabet.de domain names.
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    Audio

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California-based Google’s surprise decision this week to launch a massive reorganization of its operations, creating a new holding company called Alphabet, has created problems in far-away Munich.

The trouble was at the headquarters of the Bavarian carmaker BMW’s leasing and fleet management firm. The BMW subsidiary has been called Alphabet since 1997, and it even owns the Internet domain name alphabet.com. That website crashed this week as people from all over the world tried to get information – not about BMW but about Google’s new holding firm of the same name.

Alphabet leases out and manages more than 555,000 cars of all brands in 18 countries for corporate customers, though it has no operations in the United States. The company is fully owned by German luxury carmaker BMW.

“We will examine whether there are any implications over trademarks,” a BMW spokeswoman told German business weekly WirtschaftsWoche, a publication of the Handelsblatt publishing group.

Google did not contact BMW beforehand, nor has there been any clarification about branding rights, the BMW spokeswoman said.

The BMW subsidiary has been called Alphabet since 1997, and it even owns the Internet domain name alphabet.com.

A Google spokesman in Germany declined to comment directly on BMW’s statement when contacted by Handelsblatt Global Edition and instead referred to Monday’s statement given by Google’s chief executive Larry Page.

Google’s holding name Alphabet is not intended “to be a big consumer brand with related products,” Mr. Page said in the statement announcing the new holding company.

On the face of it, the carmaker BMW and U.S. Internet giant Google are not direct competitors. But BMW and Google, widely known for its search engine and Gmail services, could become rivals in the car market if the Silicon Valley-based company succeeds in launching self-driving cars. Google has been experimenting with self-driving cars for a couple of years.

BMW is also encroaching on Google’s turf. Together with German peers Daimler and Audi, BMW earlier this month agreed to buy Nokia’s digital mapping business HERE, pitting it against Google Maps.

However, the chances of a violation of branding rights according to German and European law are small, said Wolfgang Berlit, a specialist lawyer for the protection of intellectual property at Hamburg-based law firm Krohn.

“As BMW’s Alphabet is operating fleet management and Google is using it as a holding name for different operations of the Google group, there is no overlap of business activities,” Mr. Berlit told Handelsblatt Global Edition.

“Because the industries differ strongly I do not see why Google might be violating branding rights. The issue is whether businesses are similar or not,” said Mr. Berlit, who is also a professor at the University of Hamburg.

There might potentially be an issue when it came to Google’s development of self-driving cars, but as long as those were branded under Google’s name rather than the Alphabet brand, there was little chance of a branding rights violation, Mr. Berlit said.

Copyright laws in the United States might apply differently than in Europe, Mr. Berlit said, but he was not specialized in U.S. intellectual property laws and therefore could not say how these might affect BMW and Google.

Companies other than BMW’s Alphabet might also knock on Google’s door, disputing the new name. An Israeli design and architecture firm named Alefbet, internationally known as Alphabet, is planning to ask the Internet firm to choose a different name, the Jerusalem Post reported, citing the Israeli firm.

In the United States there are currently 103 trademark registrations that include the word “alphabet” or some close variation, Reuters news agency reported, citing a database search of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office.

Then there is the question of the alphabet.com domain name. Google launched its holding company on Monday under the website abc.xyz instead. If Google wants to take over the more common domain name, it will have to pay BMW a price.

 

Thomas Kuhn and Rebecca Eisert are correspondents with German weekly magazine WirtschaftsWoche. Gilbert Kreijger is an editor at Handelsblatt Global Edition in Berlin, focusing on companies and markets. To contact the author: kreijger@handelsblatt.com

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