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Thu 07
Dec
2006

Allevia: So Sue Me

What Max Reckons The other day two people threatened to sue me. Admittedly, they were employees of the same company. But still: two in 24 hours is a new record for me. It’s also the first time I’ve been threatened by a company, not an individual. But, like all the others, it was related to NationStates, the nation simulation web game I wrote.

To whom it may concern:

There is a “counrty” on your webite called “Allevia”. Allevia is a TRADEMARKED name and may not be used on your website. You will be receiving registered mail shortly from our legal councel here in Switzerland. We advise that you remove the trademarked name from your site without delay.

Sincerely,

N. Jackson

At first I thought this was a stunt by a NationStates player, trying to get the Allevia nation into trouble—because players can be devious like that. But there is a real Swiss company called Allevia, so I wrote to them to ask if this was for real.

Before long I had a reply from Pierre Mainil-Varlet, MD, PhD, MBA, Allevia’s Chief Operating Officer. Pierre confirmed it was genuine, and if I didn’t scrub Allevia from NationStates, “a legal action will be started.”

Now I was confused. It’s not like Allevia is such a bad nation. It’s a democracy, has excellent civil rights, low unemployment, and its national animal was the Tufted Penguin. Those are some cool birds. Sure, it’s a corporate bordello, but whose country isn’t, these days? So I had trouble seeing what this company’s problem was—other than the fact that Google’s “allevia” results listed someone who wasn’t them at number five.

I wrote to Pierre expressing my doubts:

Could you please explain why you believe the use of the Allevia name by one of our players is illegal? To my eye it just looks like coincidence—nothing about the account suggests the player is referring to (or even aware of) your company. Should nationstates.net be in breach of the law, then by all means we will comply, but I’m a little puzzled about what law you think is being broken here.

Pierre fired back a very interesting reply. Before I reveal that, though, here is a quiz. Imagine you discover an unrelated use of your company’s name in an obscure online computer game. There’s nothing offensive or damaging about it, but still, it bugs you that the internet isn’t reserved solely for your marketing messages. What do you do?

Your options:

  1. Ignore it, because it has nothing to do with you, and your time is better spent doing whatever the hell it is that your company is supposed to do.
  2. Write a polite letter explaining the situation, keeping in mind that in many parts of the world, including all the relevant ones, threatening legal action over a trademark without a genuine basis is illegal and exposes your company to counter-action.
  3. Write to an author with a history of irritability toward corporations that try to control language, claiming to have ultimate control over use of the word “in all fields of operation,” explicitly including computer games (a claim easily contradicted by your own country’s trademark registry), and repeatedly threaten him with lawsuits.

If you selected #3, you could be Allevia’s Chief Operating Officer.

Pierre agreed with me that it was “a total coincidence and not bad will from the player.” And he further acknowledged that not only is “allevia” a common Italian word, but it’s used by Estee Lauder to refer to a fragrance. However, he claimed:

[We] own all other field of application including computer games and softawre software. The situation would be the same if you would use the name coca cola.. You would be place into difficulties

He also assured me again that this was a serious matter and Allevia “will be consequent in our action,” which I took to mean something bad.

Around now I began to wonder if our player should sue Pierre. After all, the player was running a respectable nation; he wouldn’t want to be confused with a Swiss-based manufacturer of empty legal threats. I was also tickled by Pierre’s use of the Coca-Cola example. I mean, of all the companies to choose from, and all the people to try it on: he chooses Coke, and the guy who wrote a novel set in that company and had it published in ten countries.

I was a little tempted to fake up a letter from Coke, saying it had come to their attention that Pierre had used their trademarked name in an email without permission, and now they were going to sue. Because Pierre didn’t seem to understand that trademark law prohibits people from passing themselves off as you—not from talking about you, or using the same coincidental series of letters in unrelated contexts.

But I didn’t do that. Pierre CCed his last email to a bunch of people inside Allevia, presumably to impress upon them how decisively he was taking care of business. Following that, I couldn’t get him to write back to me, no matter how sneakily I encouraged him to say something else outlandish. So I’m guessing someone on that CC list knocked on his office door and had a gentle conversation with him about what the hell he was doing.

Which makes it a happy ending, in my book. The great nation of Allevia survives, its intelligent, well-educated citizens free to lead their lives unmolested in their beautiful, progressive, somewhat economically fragile nation. And, somewhere in Switzerland, a Chief Operating Officer grows a little sadder, but perhaps also a little wiser.