New Delhi / Mumbai: Estranged billionaire brothers Mukesh and Anil Ambani may have fought over the inheritance of their father, the late Dhirubhai Ambani, a gas-rich river basin and global acquisitions, but the two have, so far, pulled their punches on one issue that could trigger future business conflicts.
Companies owned by the sibling rivals have applied for a raft of trademarks in the past three years that are markedly similar to the other’s already established brands. Besides the similarity in names, the applications also suggest they are looking at the possibility of entering businesses that could potentially put them in direct competition.
Information available on the website of the Controller General of Patents Designs and Trademarks shows that elder brother Mukesh Ambani’s Reliance Industries Ltd (RIL) and its associates have filed for a bevy of trademarks such as Reliance Big Boy, Reliance Big Lots, Reliance Big Box and Reliance Big, among others.
The Reliance-Anil Dhirubhai Ambani Group (R-Adag) of Anil Ambani has, in turn, filed for names such as Big Reliance, Big Fresh Mall, Reliance Big Retail and Reliance Fast Retail.
R-Adag uses the ‘Big’ moniker for its entertainment and media businesses. While its FM radio business is branded Big FM, its chain of mulitplexes has recently been rebranded Big Cinemas from Adlabs Cinemas. The group’s direct-to-home television service is called Big TV, the movie rental venture is named Big Flix and its film production company is registered as Big Pictures.
The younger brother, in the past, fended off a trademark filing by Mumbai-based Apricot Media Pvt. Ltd. The company had sought brand protection for the ‘The Big TV’, but R-Adag opposed the move in the trademark office.
However, so far, the group is conspicuously quiet over the applications filed by the elder brother in the trademark office.
Similarly, the Mukesh Ambani group has kept quiet over the younger brother’s move to register Reliance Big Retail and Reliance Fast Retail. RIL operates a multi-billion-dollar retail venture under a company called Reliance Retail Ltd.
The trademark office, after receiving an application for a trademark, puts it in the public domain for three-four months, to give parties that perceive a conflict of interest an opportunity to protest. The two parties have, so far, not raised any objections against each other.
RIL, India’s largest company by market value, has also filed for brand protection for ‘Reliance Magicplex’ and ‘Qwikrent Books.Movies’ for providing retail services and entertainment, sporting and cultural activities.
The firm has created a spate of fully-owned subsidiaries whose stated business objectives could overlap with some existing R-Adag companies operating in the same space.
The moves also raise questions about the so-called non-compete clause in the family de-merger pact under which the brothers carved up the Reliance empire in June 2005. While the scheme of de-merger that split the Reliance empire was put to all the shareholders, the family agreement remains shrouded in mystery.
Some trademarks experts who Mint spoke with differed on the issue. While some said the two parties may have agreed on some sort of a “co-existence” pact, others said it was unlikely because similar brand names are bound to create confusion among consumers.
Pratibha Singh, a New Delhi-based trademarks and patents attorney, agreed that the “phenomenon was strange”, noting that avoiding public confusion about identities of products or entities is one of the main objectives of trademark law.
“We don’t know the origin of the word ‘Big’ within the Reliance group. If it came from a common pool of assets and marks that were meant to be shared, then it is okay, but if that is not the case, then prima facie it is a case for filing an opposition,” Singh said.
Trademarks lawyer H. Subramanium said the two parties could have common brands if they had “an internal agreement” that allowed them to do so. “Trademark law allows for an honest, concurrent user,” he said, adding that while tangible assets can be divided in a de-merger, it is difficult to split intangible assets and some parties may decide to share them.
It is, however, not clear whether such an agreement exists between the two Ambani brothers.
Responding to a detailed questionnaire sent by Mint, an RIL spokesperson said: “The names mentioned in the list were part of a comprehensive set of names, which was filed as a pre-emptive step with the authorities over two years ago. This exercise was undertaken prior to the finalization of the brand names of our various retail formats. As you will appreciate, since then we have pruned the actual list of brand names, which we would like to be registered.”
The trademark website, however, doesn’t say if the applications have been withdrawn. The website shows the brand name Reliance Big as registered by RIL. The RIL spokesperson added that the company was “committed to protect our trademarks and acknowledge the right of other corporates to protect their trademarks”.
An R-Adag spokesman didn’t respond to Mint ’s questions.
Three years after their father died in 2002 without dividing the empire he built, the brothers agreed to split businesses with a 10-year non-compete agreement.
This implied one will not enter the business in which the other is already present. There is no clarity on whether the agreement puts restrictions on entering existing businesses at the time of the de-merger, or applies to new ventures as well.