My great-grand-mother Jeanne started her own local couture business in Paris in the 1930s. She called her brand, or rather her house as people would say in those days, Micky. It was easy to memorize, it sounded fashionable, distinctive, and it was the short for her young daughter’s name Micheline.
A few years later, quite unexpectedly, she got sued over that choice of name. Not by a local competitor or any other French company that would have borne the same name, but by mighty Disney! Lawyers told Jeanne that Disney had secured worldwide ownership not only of the name Mickey but also of all variants created by adding or subtracting one letter. Micky was Mickey minus e.
Whether that was a legally robust challenge or intimidation tactics, there was no way that Jeanne could sustain a fight against giant Mickey Mouse in the courts. So she backed down pretty quickly and simply changed the name of her house to Miky. In French it pronounced exactly the same, and this time it was Mickey minus TWO letters.
I suppose Disney was satisfied, for no further action took place, and so was Jeanne who could get on with running her business. 80 years on, the lesson is that Intellectual Property can give its owner the power to slow down or distract others, but very rarely the power to stop them. In this case, it was Intellectual Property of a name, but the same goes for Intellectual Property of technology: RIM may have thought that their Blackberry ’email push’ technology would prevent competition from offering email services, but Apple and others developed the ‘email pull’ technology and the barrier became irrelevant. There always is another way.
Sadly, though, Jeanne’s re-branded house was short lived: a few months later war was spreading like wild fire throughout Europe and the business would not survive it. But that is another story…
Yann Cramer is an innovation learner, practitioner, sharer, teacher. He’s lived in France, Belgium and the UK, he’s travelled six continents to create development opportunities with customers or suppliers, and run workshops on R&D and Marketing. He writes on www.innovToday.com and on twitter @innovToday.