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July, 1993

"Paradise, Florida -- A five year old girl was attacked and eaten by a 12-foot alligator yesterday as her horrified family and bystanders hit at it with sticks and a canoe paddle in an unsuccessful attempt to save the little girl. According to Broward County sheriff's deputy Wayne Walters, 'that alligator came out of the canal so fast there just wasn't no time for people to react -- then it was too late.'"

Alligators regularly attack multimedia projects, too, with more or less tragic results. They come unexpectedly from the swampy, uncertain ground of the leading edge to surprise even the most careful producers, and some projects are, indeed, destroyed by these alligators; other projects become severely damaged but survive. Baby alligators also appear regularly not as destroyers, but as annoyances. Alligators cost time and money.

This column consists of anecdotal first-hand reports about multimedia alligator attacks and includes brief illuminated notations (such as Proceed with caution, there be dragons here... or Reduce speed and take soundings often...) to help you keep your multimedia navigation charts up-to-date. It is a SAFETY column written with the same intent as a National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) accident report: by describing an event in great detail, others may study the evolution of cause and improve their own chance of avoidance and survival.

In many of the reports here, names may be changed to protect the (not necessarily innocent) people and companies involved, and story facts may be relocated into a different time or place for purposes of misdirection. Even the best-intentioned and most expert producers may inadvertantly visit Jurassic Park, where detailed planning, preparation, technology, and project safeguards still fall apart in the face of events and bad-guy computer geeks. This column intends to harm no one while it educates many by example. Certainly the experienced pilot with over 2,000 logged commercial hours who found himself backstroking to shore with 85 passengers after an aborted take-off was not only angry and embarrassed, but worried about his job; that guy went directly to his pilot union's offices rather than face other interested authorities at the scene. Other pilots need to know how they can avoid swimming in cold water themselves.

The Trademark Alligator: How a new team did it right and still got caught.
They had a whole new line of computer products to develop and sell, and the Company committed many millions of dollars and person-years in technology and good personnel to the success of this line, forming various teams of young, aggressive, and smart engineers, product specialists, designers, marking gurus, and managers. A particularly young team was assigned to one of the niftier multimedia products in the line, and, despite their most considerable efforts to do it right, they still couldn't avoid the alligators.

At this Company, products usually have two names during their lifetimes. The first is the code name everybody uses during secret in-house development. The second, real name is the trademarked name under which the product is finally brought to market; this is the one that matters.

Late into the development cycle and after many meetings, consumer research, and expensive focus groups, this team's product was well-enough defined for a public name, which was correctly handed off to corporate legal staff for official approval. Legal researched the state and federal lists of trademarked names and happily discovered that the chosen name was available. They passed this good news on to the team, then filed the proper paperwork with the United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO).

The product was publicly announced with great fanfare. Seed units were distributed, expensive literature and advertising collateral were produced in at least five languages, the team geared up to actually ship their baby to the public, and people took vacations for the first time in 18 months. Then the letter arrived from the trademark office: sorry, that product name is registered to someone else - their application was submitted a few days sooner than yours.

It cost many phone calls, several visits by more than one lawyer to the official name owner on the other coast, and unspoken amounts of money to avoid finding a new name, retooling costs, reprinting of literature, and, of course, publicity.

For about $11.00 per name, you can do your own registered search of all fifty states' and the federal databases using CompuServe, but you should formally submit your application and have the official documents in hand before acting on your name. In CompuServe, GO IQUEST, then choose 1 (IQuest-I), then 4 (Law, Patents, Trademarks, Brand Names, Copyrights), then 3 (Trademarks) to get into the right database. Follow the directions from there.

The U.S. Federal trademarks database, for example, contains over 1 million records representing all active trademark registrations and pending applications filed with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, as well as inactive registrations and applications from 1984 forward. The database is updated twice weekly to add new applications and make status changes to existing records. This database should be used as a preliminary screening method for a new product or service name to avoid conflicts or confusion with a trademark that is already federally registered. Note that a trademark can be rightfully in use and not registered, in which case it will not be found in this databases. Further searching by a professional searcher, including examining unregistered, common law marks, is always recommended before a trademark is adopted. Best, consult an attorney, but always beware of alligators!