When Carolyn Thompson established her own real-estate agency in Virginia about a month ago, she had what she thought was a pretty good idea for a name: IntelAgent.
“It combines ‘intelligent’ and ‘agent’, like an intelligent real-estate agent,” she told me with no small pride in her voice. Thompson, 39, trademarked a couple of versions of the name, just to be on the safe side—IntelAgent and IntellAgent. “Not two weeks passed before I got a letter from Intel,” she said.
Perhaps Thompson shouldn’t have been surprised. The Santa Clara chip-making giant is famously assertive when it comes to safeguarding what it perceives to be its proprietary trademarks.
Never mind that everyone from the US military to virtually all spy agencies use ‘intel’ as shorthand for ‘intelligence.’ To Intel Corp., any commercial use of the five letters is unacceptable, and the company won’t hesitate to threaten legal action. “Our brand has value,” declared Chuck Mulloy, an Intel spokesman. “We spend millions each year on our trademark activities.”
Indeed, he said, the chip maker is typically involved in about 1,000 trademark disputes every year. Fewer than 10%, Mulloy said, end in litigation. “The rest are amicably resolved,” he said. Usually that means some money changes hands to make the problem go away.
In Thompson’s case, her first letter from Intel was a formal notification that the chip maker was unhappy and wanted a word or two with her lawyer.
She promptly called Intel and left a message saying that she didn’t have a lawyer and wasn’t sure why this was a problem. Intel makes computer chips. She sells houses in Virginia, Maryland and Washington, D.C. What’s the big deal?
Last week, Thompson received a response from Tuan Le, a senior trademark attorney at Intel. “Our intent is not to disrupt your business,” he wrote. “The law requires that Intel police others’ uses of names or marks that would likely confuse consumers; falsely suggest some relationship between Intel and someone else’s business, products or services; or dilute the significant association of the Intel mark with Intel Corp. If Intel does not do so, it risks losing its valuable rights.”
The prefix ‘intel’ isn’t the only part of speech that Intel claims first dibs to. Five years ago, I wrote about the case of Mark Stephens and his Yoga Inside Foundation in Southern California.
Like Thompson, Stephens was surprised to receive a letter from Intel insisting that his serenity-seeking non-profit group was recklessly violating the chip maker’s ‘Intel Inside’ trademark and needed to change its tune immediately. Yoga Inside provided free yoga classes in schools, treatment facilities, shelters, prisons and underprivileged communities. Hence the whole of idea of yoga ... inside.
In documents filed with the US Patent and Trademark Office, Intel said the ‘Intel Inside’ logo appears on “millions and millions” of computers and that the company has spent “billions of dollars” promoting the phrase. For this reason, Intel said that virtually any linguistic construction of ‘(Blank) Inside’ constitutes a trademark violation.
Stephens told me the other day that he changed the name of his group to Yoga on the Inside after being offered a cash settlement from Intel. “I just didn’t have the time or the resources to fight Intel on this,” Stephens said.
For her part, Thompson told Intel that, as far as she knows, no one has ever confused her tiny IntelAgent Real Estate Services in Winchester, Virginia, with Intel Corp. Intel’s Le responded by observing that “the test for trademark infringement is likelihood of confusion, and actual confusion is not necessary to meet this standard.”
Apparently, Intel believes it likely that, any day now, someone will pause while touring a house with Thompson and say, “Oh, by the way, what’s the latest word on quad-core chip design?”
Le went on to suggest that if Thompson wants to convey a sense of ‘intelligence’ at her real-estate agency, she should go with the prefix ‘intelli.’ Try saying ‘Intelli-Agent’ to yourself. Flows right off the tongue, doesn’t it?
In any case, Intel appears to be rather inconsistent in picking fights with small-business people.
Remy Bibaud, 34, said she opened Intelagent Resources in Pittsburgh four years ago. She offers technology and management consulting to schools and nonprofit groups. “I never thought about Intel, the chip company, when I started my business,” Bibaud said. “I thought about ‘intelligence’ and being an agent for change. I try to bring some intelligence to those I work with.”
In light of Thompson's experience (and because I'm writing about her in the newspaper), is she concerned that Intel will come after her? “I am now,” Bibaud answered. “I can’t afford to fight them in court for name rights.”
She thought about it a bit more. “I certainly wouldn't want to change my name,” Bibaud decided. “It’s recognized here in Pittsburgh, and it would really stink if some big company said they owned the word “intel’.” Thompson also says she doesn’t want to back down. “I like the name IntelAgent,” she said. “I think it’s smart. I like it enough to fight for it.”
Thompson better get a good lawyer. Intel’s Le said she has until 1 June to decide whether she wants to settle the matter in a friendly fashion. “If we cannot settle this amicably,” he warned, “we will be forced to consider all options in order to enforce our trademarks rights as required by law.”
Nothing confusing about that.