The unequal battle
Katy McKenzie, from Duston in Northampton, had been looking forward to officially getting started with her new business, Word Windows, when she received a threatening letter from a US-based tech company. Microsoft claims that the Word Windows trademark is infringing on their products and services due to perceived similarity that can lead to consumer confusion.
Word windows is a plastic tool that can be placed on top of a book page to isolate individual words, letters and their sounds in a window to help children and adults who have dyslexia. McKenzie was driven to develop the educational tool after both herself and her son Lucas struggled with dyslexia. In 2021, McKenzie won a grant from Business and IP Centre Northamptonshire to help launch the product.
McKenzie has already shared her story with multiple news outlets such as the Guardian and BBC. She commented that it would be difficult to change her product’s name as she had already spent money on packaging, branding and manufacturing. The story is likely to remain in the spotlight for a while, leaving a permanent mark on Microsoft’s reputation.
The power of the media
Smaller companies that find themselves victims of trademark bullying from international giants may turn to the media as a source of support and potentially a tactical tool to use to gain public support for their case. On the other hand, larger companies should consider potential media response and its effect on their reputation in their strategy and approach when defending against infringement with a substantially smaller opponent.
Stories of trademark bullying, David and Goliath of the IP realm, are often popular with media outlets as they drive audience engagement and speak to the public's sympathy for the underdog. Central to the challenge for large businesses is that the average consumer does not have a good understanding of the nuances of intellectual property rights and the scope of protection (nor do most media outlets, incidentally). Combined with the speed at which stories can go viral through social media, a brand can find itself very much on the back foot and facing significant brand damage when stories of "bullying" hit the headlines.
Another example from a couple of years ago is a famous trademark dispute between an internationally well-known luxury fashion house Hugo Boss and a small family-owned Welsh brewery, Boss Brewing. The case went viral on the internet after British comedian Joe Lycett announced on Twitter that he had legally changed his name to Hugo Boss as a sign of protest against the fashion brand for what Lycett perceived to be an aggressive approach to brand enforcement.
The strategy of companies like Microsoft to secure their intellectual property has the potential to end up causing more damage to their reputation than merely having a registered trademark similar to theirs. This is why brands should carefully consider how they handle individual dispute cases, evaluate the real risk of brand confusion or potential devaluation of the brand and try to negotiate an outcome that wouldn't reflect poorly on the brand's long-term reputation.