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Facebook pokes start-up Teachbook with lawsuit

The social network files a complaint against a social network that it says dilutes the Facebook brand through its use of the "-book" suffix. What about all the other companies that use it, too?

Facebook is concerned that a start-up social network with the word "book" in its portmanteau title is infringing on its own trademarks. It filed a court complaint on Wednesday in a California district court against Teachbook, a networking site geared toward teachers.

Claiming that Teachbook is "riding on the coattails of the fame and enormous goodwill of the Facebook trademark," the complaint asserts that the start-up, which is headquartered in a suburb of Chicago, shouldn't be using the "-book" suffix.

"The 'book' component of the Facebook mark has no descriptive meaning and is arbitrary and highly distinctive in the context of online communities and networking Web sites," the complaint explains. "If others could freely use 'generic plus BOOK' marks for online networking services targeted to that particular generic category of individuals, the suffix 'book' could become a generic term for 'online community/networking services' or 'social networking services.' That would dilute the distinctiveness of the Facebook marks, impairing their ability to function as unique and distinctive identifiers of Facebook's goods and services."

Teachbook, which has not yet commented on the matter, doesn't appear to imitate Facebook's design or feel, but Facebook's whole argument is that it doesn't want the "-book" suffix to become a social-networking term independent of the Facebook brand. The complaint brings up, among other things, that Teachbook markets itself as a social-networking option for teachers whose schools may have blocked or forbidden access to social networks such as Facebook.

Noooooo! Not Ferretbook! Leave the ferrets alone, Facebook! CC: Flickr user mrpattersonsir

It should be noted that the context of "-book" in the name Teachbook is very similar to that used by a company called Poolhouse Enterprises, which runs Facebook applications for users who want to showcase their kids and pets--Dogbook, Catbook, Ferretbook, and Rodentbook, to name a few. Several of Poolhouse's more popular apps are also available in Apple's App Store.

Poolhouse did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg derived the company's name (originally "Thefacebook") from the common college term "facebook," the bound book of classmate mugshots typically distributed to incoming freshmen. But since then, the social-networking site, which has more than 500 million users around the world, has more or less co-opted the word. Two years ago, the uncertainty of the trademark made some headlines, when Aaron Greenspan, a software entrepreneur who had attended Harvard University with Zuckerberg and claimed ownership of the concept behind Facebook, petitioned to the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office to have Facebook's trademark on the word revoked.

Greenspan's rationale was that "facebook" had been a common term prior to the rise of Facebook, and that the trademark, for which Facebook originally filed in February 2005, made it difficult for him to market the title of his book, "Authoritas: One Student's Harvard Admissions and the Founding of the Facebook Era" through Google search ads.

The legal dispute between Greenspan's company, Think Computer, and Facebook was settled last May. The terms of the settlement explained that Greenspan would abandon his efforts to cancel the Facebook trademark. At the time, Greenspan was quoted as saying that "I am glad that my contributions have been recognized by Facebook" and Zuckerberg as saying that "we are pleased that we've been able to amicably resolve our differences."

Greenspan, reached via e-mail, said he was unable to comment further.