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Geneva entrepreneur locked in legal battle with Time Warner

Time Warner is protecting the name of its famous "Friends" café

A Geneva bistro owner is locked in a legal battle with the mighty United States media giant, Time Warner, over the rights to "Central Perk", the name of the bar in the hit television series, "Friends".

The dispute is of David and Goliath proportions, and so far David - in the shape of Louis Perdrezat - has the upper hand, having brushed aside the multinational's accusations of unfair competition and breach of intellectual property rights.

After applying first for Swiss and then international registration in November 1998, Perdrezat now owns the rights to the name Central Perk in over 20 countries. His eventual aim is to open a chain of franchises throughout Europe.

The first establishment in this chain opened in the Geneva district of Plainpalais in February 2000. The similarities with the bar frequented on television by the six New York 30-somethings are striking - big, comfortable sofas and armchairs in a relaxed atmosphere conducive to chatting with your friends.

"I saw the television series and thought the bar had a pleasant atmosphere," Perdrizat told swissinfo. "I decided that the next bistro I opened would have a similar ambience and décor.

"My little bistro was quite successful, so I decided to find out if the name Central Perk was protected, and it wasn't. So I decided to protect the name before anyone beat me to it," he added.

Across the Atlantic, executives at Time Warner were far from pleased. They launched legal proceedings and demanded that the registration of the name be cancelled.

"I was disappointed by their reaction, because I thought we might be able to develop something together," Perdrezat says. "I think they were annoyed because they hadn't thought of protecting the name before I did."

Indeed, Time Warner have only succeeded in protecting the Central Perk logo in the United States and Britain, and that only after Perdrezat had done likewise throughout Europe.

The American giant accuses Perdrezat of unfair competition, copyright violation and of copying and profiting from the name without making any creative effort.

"There's no unfair competition because we're operating in completely different economic domains. If they had bistros and restaurants, they could accuse me of unfair competition," Perdrezat says.

That was precisely the view of the courts in Geneva last November when they rejected a demand from Time Warner to temporarily ban Perdrezat from using the logo and an Internet site with the same name.

The American entertainment group has now submitted an appeal to the Swiss federal court.

The World Intellectual Property Organisation (WIPO), which administers global copyright law, told swissinfo that Time Warner had not registered the Central Perk mark with it. The United States is not a party to the Madrid Agreement and Protocol, which Perdrezat used to register his trademark.

"The Madrid Agreement and Protocol is a quick and inexpensive way for someone to protect a trademark in many countries through a single application," explains Malcolm Todd, of WIPO's International Registrations Department.

Todd says that just four of the 32 countries designated in the application - Iceland, Spain, Sweden and Britain - have refused Perdrezat's registration.

Perdrezat has been careful not to stray into the field of entertainment, nor make any reference to Friends: "Look around. There are no posters, T-shirts, watches or ashtrays - no merchandising at all which refers to the television series," he says.

The bistro owner is determined not to give up the name, but that does not mean he is not open to some kind of accommodation with Time Warner. He has offered to hold talks with the US company in a bid to find an amicable outcome.

"At first, I think they thought I protected the name so that I could sell it to them at a high price. But money wasn't the driving force. I wanted to create something," Perdrezat explained to swissinfo.

"I would be delighted to set up a chain of modest establishments like this one, with the support of Time Warner. I only hope that they're ready to talk. It would be in everybody's interests," he added.

Perdrezat says he is confident that he will be able to keep the rights to the name, although he is less certain about the logo, as this involves the rights of the designer.

So could Perdrezat envisage Friends' star, Jennifer Aniston, one day walking into his bistro, sitting on one of those comfortable sofas and ordering a coffee? "She could even come to my house. The door is open."

by Roy Probert


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