Microsoft Once Threatened to Sue E.piphany Over the Letter “E”

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Business law is tricky, especially when it relates to copyright and trademarks. Steve Blank, co-founder of what was then E.piphany, recently posted about a time when Microsoft threatened to sue his company over their use of the letter “E” in their logo. You see, Microsoft had released Internet Explorer 3 to the masses with a new logo: The letter “E” with a swoop. Unfortunately, E.piphany made the same decision with their own logo. Cue legal posturing.

In order to keep a trademark, one must attempt to protect it. That’s what leads to these kind of maneuvers. Microsoft’s lawyers were basically required to threaten and puff up, otherwise they could lose their trademark eventually. Even so, the whole dance is often considered absurd, but necessary.

So, it comes as no surprise that Microsoft would push a memo down the throats of E.piphany in 1997 over the logo and demand they change it. Blank wasn’t exactly pleased with this action, and has shared what Doug Camplejohn, the VP of Marketing for E.piphany at the time, claims was his response to Microsoft’s salvo. Due to the nature of the piece, we’ve provided it in full below:

Dear Bill,

We are in receipt of your lawyer’s letter claiming Microsoft’s ownership of the look and feel of the letter “e”. While I understand Microsoft’s proprietary interest in protecting its software, I did not realize (until the receipt of your ominous legal missive) that one of the 26 letters in the English language was now the trademarked property of Microsoft.

Given the name of your company, claiming the letter “e” is an unusual place to start. I can understand Microsoft wanting exclusive rights to the letter “M” or “W”, but “e”? I can even imagine a close family member starting your alphabet collection by buying you the letters “B” or “G” as a birthday present. Even the letters “F” “T” or “C” must be more appealing right now then starting with “e”.

In fact, considering Microsoft’s financial health and legal prowess you may want to consider buying a symbol rather than a letter. Imagine the value of charging royalties on the use of the dollar “$” sign.

I understand the legal complaint refers to the similarities of our use of “e” in the Epiphany corporate logo to the “e” in the Internet Explorer logo. Given that the name of my company and the name of your product both start with the same letter, it doesn’t take much imagination to figure out why we both used the letter in our logos, but I guess it has escaped your lawyers.

As to confusion between the two products, it is hard for me to understand why someone would confuse a $250,000 enterprise software package (with which we require a customer to buy $50,000 of Microsoft software; NT, SQL Server and IIS), with the free and ever present Internet Explorer.

Given that Microsoft sets the standard for most things in the computer industry, I hope we don’t open the mail next week and find Netscape suing us for using the letter “N”, quickly followed by Sun’s claim on “J”. Perhaps we can submit all 26 letters to some sort of standards committee for arbitration.

Come to think of it, starting with “e” is another brilliant Microsoft strategy. It is the most common letter in the English language.

Steve Blank

Blank supposedly never sent the email, though we kind of wish he had, and Microsoft went on to become a major customer of E.piphany’s. One wonders what the response would have been had he sent the snarky reply. Anger leads to hate, and all that.

(Steve Blank via Hacker News)

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