A Year Ago Today: MS sued over IE name

Originally published August 15, 1996

Internet Explorer, Microsoft's flagship browser, may have to be renamed if court action by Illinois ISP Synet Inc is successful.

The 18-man company claims that it produced a software bundle of Internet utilities (including Netscape Navigator) by that name in 1994, a year before Microsoft started to use the name, and that it has been trademarked in Illinois since that date. There's also a federal trademark registration pending which, says Synet, prevents the use of the name by anyone else in the US.

Dhiren Rana, founder and chief executive officer of Synet, told PCDN he contacted Microsoft as soon as it released its Internet Explorer, as under US law any undefended trademark infringement invalidates all legal protection. Microsoft said it would like to share the name at no cost, but wasn't inclined to cut a deal. "They thought 'small company' and just carried on using and marketing the name", said Rana -- subsequently, Synet issued the lawsuit. This asks Microsoft to cease using the name and pay damages to Synet.

The suit was filed in October and the papers served on Microsoft in January. "We'd been using that since before MS was in the Internet business," said Rana, "and they just didn't want to know. They threatened that they'd get a cancellation of the mark in Illinois, as if they controlled the State of Illinois! All the time, the attitude has been "We're the big guys, you're the little guys.

We're going to stamp all over you". The worst part for us as a small company is that they're marketing the name everywhere -- how many copies will be distributed with Windows 95? Nobody's going to think of us when they hear "Internet Explorer".

They [Microsoft] can take any name and make it their own. What can we do? There's no question that they're abusing their position of power and marketing might -- they've stolen the name from us."

Microsoft -- from whom we couldn't get a statement at the time of writing -- is on record as saying that the name can't be protected because it is a 'generic term' and thus already in common use.

Rana is unconvinced on several fronts. "Lots of generic terms are trademarked. Also, how can they licence the Internet Explorer logo for the download buttons if it's generic?"

Synet, Inc. will be opening its offices in the UK in the next 45-60 days and will be providing nationwide local-call access.

ZDNN Comment: If Microsoft's 'generic term' argument holds true, then anyone will be able to market a product called Internet Explorer and Microsoft will have to change the name. If, on the other hand, Microsoft loses the argument, then it'll have to change the name. The only way that Internet Explorer can keep its name is for Microsoft to reach agreement -- presumably involving significant dollarage -- with Synet, Inc. Currently, Synet is very disinclined to reach such an agreement.

It is important to take an objective view of cases such as this and to stress that it's always better to sort things out without paying lawyers: nevertheless, companies who are disposed towards legal measures in the course of their normal commercial conduct should really take care to do their research. Heavy-handed conduct is one thing: inept heavyhandedness will be its own reward.