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Amazee or Amazon – what’s in a name?

Can you spot the difference?

A Swiss website firm is facing a David versus Goliath legal battle against online retail giant Amazon for the right to register its trademark in the United States.

Amazon has warned it will try to stop Amazee from using its brand in the US on the grounds that the names are too similar, despite the two companies offering different services.

The blocking bid follows an earlier threat to prevent Amazee from operating under its own name in Switzerland. Zurich-based Amazee successfully registered the trademark in its home country two years ago.

That warning shot across Amazee’s bows, delivered last year, appeared to have faded. But the online platform for campaigning and fundraising communities must now stave off Amazon’s objection to its name being registered in the US.

“We really don’t see the point of this opposition,” Amazee spokeswoman Dania Gerhardt told swissinfo. “Amazee is based on the word ‘amaze’ and Amazon is based on a South American river.”

“The two words are pronounced differently, one third of the name is different, the brand looks different and we operate in a completely different field,” she added.

Legal minefield

Trademark battles are usually limited to companies offering similar goods and services. Amazon’s speciality in online book selling does not overlap with Amazee’s services.

But Marco Bundi, from Swiss law firm Meissner and Partners that specialises in trademark disputes, said well-known international brands generally receive extra protection. “A furniture maker cannot use the name Coca Cola, for example, to sell its products,” he explained.

Amazee will argue in the US that more than 400 other firms trade under a registered name starting with the letters ‘amaz’. But Bundi believes this could be part of the reason that Amazon has chosen to act.

“If a lot of companies use the same or a similar trademark to yours then it becomes diluted and you lose quite a lot of your legal protection,” he told swissinfo. “The beginning of the trademark is the most important part because it is seen first by the public.”

Bundi added that such disputes are never clear-cut because the ruling hinges on the personal judgement of the arbitrators. But unlike in Switzerland, where legal costs and damages are limited, trademark disputes in the US can rack up crippling bills.

A point of principle

“The mighty companies may not be morally right, but they are always right legally because they can drag these cases on until the smaller company runs out of money,” said Amazee’s Gerhardt.

“That is not right because a small firm does not having a chance of defending their own brand.”

However, Amazee has vowed to stand up to the legal challenge and has initiated a campaign on its own website to drum up public support. The firm also fears that Amazon would use a victory in the US as leverage to attack its brand in Switzerland.

As a small online company with little printed material, rebranding would not hurt Amazee as much as other firms but could confuse its users. Despite the inconvenience, Amazee is not taking the attack from the mighty Amazon personally.

“It was totally annoying when we first heard from Amazon, but we are not mad with them. Large companies need to protect their brand as far as they can, but most people think that we are right so we are not going to give in at the start,” Gerhardt said.

Amazon declined to comment on the case.

swissinfo, Matthew Allen in Zurich

Amazee is a social networking website, founded in 2007 with the help of the Swiss government’s innovation promotion agency.

The website provides a platform for individuals and groups to promote their ideas, campaigns, projects and fundraising initiatives.

There are currently over a thousand such communities using the website. The company has seven employees.

Projects have included the building of an IT learning centre in Sri Lanka, planning meetings of internet entrepreneurs in Zurich and ensuring the complete supply with running water in a small South African village.

Amazon is a highly successful online platform, founded by Jeff Bezos in 1994, that sells books and a range of other products. Headquartered in Seattle, US, the company has a presence in 15 other countries with 20,700 employees.

The group recorded net sales of $4.89 billion (SFr5.6 billion) and net income of $177 million in the first three months of this year. This followed sales of over $19 billion and net income of $645 million for the full year of 2008.

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SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR

SWI - a branch of Swiss Broadcasting Corporation SRG SSR