Intellectual property in pop culture — “Silicon Valley” on HBO

Today the followers of the HBO series Silicon Valley (yes, me among them) saw the third episode.  In this episode, we encounter at least two intellectual property issues.

The geeks who are rather hamfistedly founding a new startup (centered on a data compression algorithm) get into a bind.  They sort of randomly called the new company “Pied Piper”, and an angel investor has cut a check for $200K payable to “Pied Piper Inc.”.  And they can’t deposit it because (a) they had not until now bothered to set up a company with that name (or any company at all), and (b) it turns out that an irrigation services company in Gilroy already has a corporation by that name, and (c) the Gilroy company has a trademark registration for the name.

The trademark issues abound.  The Gilroy company’s line of business is irrigation.  Not the same as data compression services.  Indeed the owner of the Gilroy company says “nobody is going to confuse an irrigation company with a Silicon Valley startup”.  Surely a coexistence agreement would be in the works?  But no, the protagonist seems to be under the impression that the only way forward is to buy the trademark rights, or the company, or something (not quite clear exactly what but they shook hands on it for $1K, so it must be okay).

Next come the patent issues.  Turns out our protagonist, before accepting the angel money, had offered the technology to Hooli, a (fictitious) very large Silicon Valley company with oodles of money.  And now it seems Hooli is reverse engineering the technology and plans to get to market with a competing data compression product before the startup gets to market.  Maybe in episode 4 it will be revealed that our protagonist had the foresight to file a provisional patent application on his technology before revealing it to Hooli.  But at least as of now in episode 3, there’s no sign that our protagonist did so.

Back to the trademark issues.  In a scene that reminds me of interactions with certain clients over the years, we see a bunch of company founders staring at a whiteboard where a variety of would-be company names are written.  The founders are trying to brainstorm to come up with a new name that they might use instead of “Pied Piper”.  As we know, a good trademark:

  • is one for which the name is not already taken by someone else with the Secretary of State in the state where you are trying to incorporate;
  • is one for which the matching dot-com domain name is not already taken;
  • is one for which, if you hear it spoken, you can immediately guess correctly how it is spelled;
  • is one for which, if you see it written, you can correctly guess how to pronounce it;
  • is not too terribly many letters long;
  • does not rely, for its intelligibility, upon some strained punctuation or mid-word capitalization;
  • is available for purposes of a federal trademark registration;  and
  • does not mean “donkey poop” in any language.

Of course every would-be company name on the white board in this fictional television series violates at least one of these rules.

I wonder how many homes this evening had someone shouting at the television “just sign a coexistence agreement!”




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