Over the past month, attorneys for the software giant have contacted at least three different companies that use the initials in their Internet address or to designate their company or products.
"'NT' and terms including 'NT' should not be part of your company name or product names," states one letter dated August 19. It goes on to request that the company, Columbus, Ohio-based Midwestern Commerce, stop using its "NTsecurity.com" domain and "ScanNT" as the name of one of its products.
Some of the companies offering consulting or other services focusing on Windows NT have been using the initials in their names for years. One Windows NT consultant estimated there may be 100 or more companies with the initials in their names. The fact that Microsoft is now taking action angered two recipients.
"I don't think Microsoft was right to promote a very relaxed attitude toward the use of 'NT,'" said Ratmir Timashev, president of Midwestern Commerce. "They have the right to request us not to use 'NT' in our name, but I don't see why they want to do that."
Microsoft "didn't mind us helping promote NT when it was getting started," added an executive of another company receiving the letter, who asked to remain anonymous. "Now that it's taken off, they're shutting the door."
A spokesman for Microsoft confirmed that it had sent out "a handful" of such letters over the years, adding that they were necessary to protect the company's valuable trademark on Windows NT.
"When you use the word 'NT' in the industry as slang for Windows NT, you're diluting the trademark value of Windows NT," said Vivek Varma, communications manager at Microsoft. "We are very aware of our intellectual property rights, and we are following through on very reasonable steps to protect our trademark."
While Microsoft owns the trademark "Windows NT," a database of U.S. trademarks shows the company does not have a registration for the initials "NT" alone, a trademark attorney said. That didn't stop Microsoft from claiming "NT" as a trademark in the two letters obtained by CNET's NEWS.COM. What's more, a handful of other companies, including Northern Telecom, have registrations to the initials.
Given Microsoft's lack of a registration--and all the other companies with rights to "NT"--Microsoft's case is not a slam dunk, according to attorneys.
Rochelle Alpert, a trademark attorney with Morrison & Foerster, said "it's not a clean slate from which [the company] is coming," adding that Microsoft could be further hurt by waiting to enforce its rights.
Another lawyer concurred. "One thing I would be very concerned about if I were Microsoft, given its dramatic market power, is that it not overstate its intellectual property rights in its Windows NT trademark," said Rich Gray, an antitrust attorney at Bergeson, Eliopoulos, Grady, & Gray. "There are cases that clearly establish that an overaggressive assertion of intellectual property rights can be anticompetitive, especially for a company like Microsoft."
Still, Alpert added, the company could assert common-law rights to "NT," as well as argue that the smaller companies are engaging in unfair business practices.
"It will really depend on what the public perceives is happening with these names," she noted. "Is there affiliation or a likelihood of confusion?"
Guidelines provided by Microsoft on the proper use of its trademarks instruct companies not to use "NT" in product names without a license but make no such admonishment for domain names.