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Microsoft registers trademark--19 years late

Does the software giant's trademark application for Excel signal an infringement crackdown?

Microsoft introduced its Excel spreadsheet program in 1985, but didn't get around to officially registering its trademark until earlier this year.

The company filed a trademark application for Excel in April, even though the name is already protected by something called common law trademark, said Microsoft spokeswoman Stacy Drake. The company wants to make it official with the United States Patent and Trademark Office because "it doesn't hurt to take it one step further," Drake said.

It may also have something to do with the fact that dozens of software products now feature "Excel" in their names. TurboExcel, developed by a New York company called Savvysoft, is one of them. Microsoft recently sent a letter to the company, demanding it change the product's name. The software giant has approached a number of others about Excel trademark infringements as well, Drake said. She declined to name them.

Savvysoft, which introduced TurboExcel in June, believes Microsoft is unfairly singling it out because the software program allows people to convert Excel spreadsheets into different formats and run them on the Linux operating system, a rival to Microsoft's Windows.

"We don't think they're really upset about the trademark," said LeeAnn Chen, marketing director at Savvysoft. "We suspect the reason Microsoft is picking on us is that they don't like what our product does."

Drake disagreed.

"It is always about the trademark, and that is all this is about," she said. "It's not about what the company does; it's about the name."

Chen said the trademark may have become invalid because Microsoft has been so lax about enforcing it.

Curiously, a glance at Microsoft's own trademark list shows that company has not officially registered trademarks for some of its most popular brands, including Office and Word. Presumably, those names are also covered by common law trademark, which is established when a name "becomes associated in the mind of the public with the particular good or service," according to ExpertLaw, an online legal information guide.

Microsoft has posted an online guide to using the trademarks and names of products in its Office package, including Excel and Word.

The company has been embroiled in trademark disputes before. In July, the company ended a two-year dispute with Linux developer Lindows--now Linspire--by paying the company $20 million to change its name.

In January, Microsoft caused a dustup after demanding that Canadian teenager Mike Rowe transfer control of the domain name MikeRoweSoft.com to the company in exchange for $10. After taking his story to the media, Rowe ultimately enhanced the settlement to include a free Xbox, help with setting up a new site, a Microsoft certification course and a trip for his family to the Microsoft Research Tech Fest in Redmond, Wash.